The Wrong Signal

Sometime last week a thought occurred to a member of our staff that is so obvious as to require wider attention: Namely, what happens when, as would appear inevitable, the current national Code Orange level of alert is relaxed to the next level down, Code Yellow? (Leave aside for the moment the dire prospect that Code Red, the highest possible level of alert, might come instead.)

When the inevitable demotion occurs, does that mean that the danger, such as it is, is over with? Or would it merely constitute an invitation to terrorists, a sign to them that vigilance has been relaxed and security precuations have been lowered to the point that a strike would have a better chance of success?

This alert system seems not to have been very well thought out. It is not just that the decision to impose a Code Orange alert in the last couple of weeks seems to have been made on not very convincing evidence (alternatively, to be fair, on evidence so gruesome and frightening that the basis for it has been entirely withheld from us). It is not just that Code Orange has strained the already attenuated resources of police and fire authorities and emergency agencies of state and local governments. It is not just that nerves have been frayed and personal and business schedules of citizens everywhere altered to no particular point. It is that the signals themselves send the wrong signal.

None of us need to be told that we live in times of greater peril than existed prior to September 11th (a date so momentous as to need no calendar year attached to it). Either we should be maintaining a fairly constant state of ready alertness or, if special measures are indicated, we should have a better, more focused explanation of what to expect.

And we can surely do better than the precautionary advice conferred upon a potentially trembling populace by the administration, in tandem with its Code Orange high alert. Duct tape. Give us a break. It was for this that we endowed a brand-new cabinet-level department of Homeland Security?

Instead of such Keystone Kops theatrics, most Americans, we believe, would gladly make such sacrifices or shoulder such burdens, financial or otherwise, as are necessary to shore up what seems clearly to be a vulnerable national security apparatus. We need no special alarms or dime-store remedies to do so. Just level with us (no pun intended) and don't insult either our collective intelligence or our ense of humor.

A State of Irony

Tennessee's current Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, is pursuing a serious budget-cutting course -- 7.5 percent cuts in state spending across the board. That is the sort of thing normally called for by Republican candidates in their sternest campaign modes.

Interestingly enough, Bredesen's predecessor, Republican Don Sundquist, labored mightily to achieve the kind of income-tax reform measures normally favored by Democrats and did his best to preserve the TennCare program (now being considered for abolishment by Bredesen) that was brought into being by Sundquist's Democratic predecessor, Ned Ray McWherter.

Clearly, we live in demanding times, in which certain political stereotypes have been relaxed to the point of being meaningless. The good news is that this could -- theoretically, anyway -- free the minds of all parties from preconceptions and outmoded ideas. The bad news is that all this wouldn't be happening if the current fiscal crisis weren't so confounding as to break down the stereotypes. All we can hope is that the right solution emerges from all the confusion.

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