Color alert system: more harm than good

Curt Harris and Curt Harris

Over a week ago, 21 people died in the E2 Nightclub in Chicago. The stampede was triggered when a bouncer at the club tried to break up a fight between two girls with pepper spray. The crowd panicked and fled for the doors. Fire exits were illegally blocked or locked and as a result hundreds of people trying to squeeze through one doorway.

In the aftermath of every tragedy, there’s finger pointing. Who’s to blame? Who shall bear responsibility for these deaths? Fingers are of course being pointed to the girls who started the fight. Fingers are being pointed at the bouncer who sprayed the pepper spray in a confined area. Fingers are being pointed at the club’s owner for having fire exits blocked. Fingers are being pointed at the city of Chicago for not enforcing the fire code strictly enough. Fingers are also being pointed at the fire department for not rescuing people quickly enough.

Understandably, no one’s eager to take the blame. In an interview in Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times, E2 nightclub owner Dwain Kyles said it was not the pepper spray that caused the stampede. “What really caused the panic was after the pepper spray somebody started yelling, ‘This is a terrorist attack.'”

In the old days someone claiming something as simple as a bar fight as a terrorist attack would have been absurd, even laughable. After the initial shock of 9/11 wore off, terrorist attacks in the 50 states were still just isolated incidents and seen as an extremely remote possibility, whereas before it had been an impossibility. Enter Tom Ridge and the department of homeland security.

The purpose of this department is to protect America and Americans from future attacks, which is a good thing. However I think that perhaps already it’s doing more harm than good. At the time of the stampede we were at Orange Alert, the second highest level our inspired- by-Skittles color coded warning system goes, and the highest it had been since its inception. By simply declaring a level orange a Y2K like fervor was caused and Home Land security’s warnings caused a rush on Home Depot for plastic sheets and duct tape. In some big cities there was paranoia running rampant in the streets.

There are questions that now need to be answered. Would the stampede have been caused if we’d been at Yellow Alert? Are we as a nation better off because we were on high alert rather than elevated alert?

I don’t think our color coded alert system does anything more than tell people how afraid to be. People were afraid in that night club because they were told to be waiting on high alert for a terrorist attack. I don’t think this system is protecting Americans. I think it’s doing nothing more than making us scared, frightened and paranoid. Perhaps the United States was living in a bubble of denial thinking that people hate us and that people want to kills us. But would you rather live without that bubble and have stampedes at nightclubs a regular occurrence?

“Don’t live in fear or the terrorists win,” is what we were told in the aftermath of 9/11. And now a year and a half later Homeland Security director Tom Ridge gets to decide how much the terrorists are winning each day?

This homeland security advisory system may be helping a little bit but it’s hurting more. It’s time to abolish this silly color coded system that never should have been put in place in the first place.

If for no other reason, simple math. Since it’s inception, the number of terrorist activities avoided by, in part, the homeland security advisory system: 0; the number of people killed by, in part, the homeland security advisory system: 21.