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Threat Level Orange

I just got home from another business trip. I seem to be in the middle of another spat of business travel with all the requisite fun of airports, flights, taxis, rental cars and hotels.

As I drove to the airport for this trip I noted the electronic sign at the entrance of the airport proclaiming:

Threat Level Orange

I have to ask, what good is this? What in the world is this supposed to do to make my life better? Really. Let’s think about this. My reaction to the blazing orange threat level was essentially as follows:

  1. Is orange bad? What is really bad? Orange sounds horrible. Does this mean my plane is going to explode?
  2. What caused the threat level to be orange? Is there a global terrorism plot targeting the Minneapolis airport on the day I’m flying? Did some high school kid threaten to explode football stadiums?
  3. At what threat level do I not fly? Seriously. If this is supposed to inform me and make me more educated, when do I turn around and go home. Maybe orange? I’m going home, I don’t want to die.
  4. This is stupid.

So I’m back to the beginning, what is the point? Other than making me feel nervous, slightly anxious, remind me that if I’m lucky enough to win the lottery I might have a terrorist incident in the airport. The only real impact this blazing “Threat Level Orange” had on me was to reinforce a low level of fear that is propogated by a variety of government and non-government agencies.

150-hsas.gifI decided to visit the Department of Homeland Security website and find out what these levels really were. The image to the right is from the DHS website. I love the names. I’ve never, ever, seen green. That really makes sense after all, when are you ever safe. Someone may be stalking you right now, and yes, your plane may blow up. Be afraid, very afraid. Guarded is great. Blue doesn’t make intuitive sense to me on this scale, but I’ll leave that for now. Be guarded, don’t trust those strangers. Then there is the issue of the scale as a whole, is it really linear with these equal bands? It would seem to me that the way a scale like this should work, if it should even exist, is that from 0 to 60 it’s low. In essence, the vast majority of the time. And 61 to 80 is guarded. An exponential, not linear, scale.

Since I cannot determine any value provided to me from this wonderful service other than fear it just strikes me as very Orwellian. What better way to keep people under control than constantly remind them of things that are statistically irrelevant.


I just went to the DHS website and it looks like the threat level may now be yellow!


Or not? I love this graphic. The top says the threat level is ELEVATED (note the all caps, it’s important) and the yellow bar is highlighted. Then the text says it is HIGH. Turns out that they are just telling us that there is a “significant risk of terrorist attacks” in general, and that in the airlines there is a “high risk of terrorist attacks”. It’s confusing to say the least, but make sure you stay scared.

Watch out!


  1. Seriously, why do you hate Freedom so much?

  2. If we did have to have color coded security levels, I’d suggest we only have two: red (signifying emergency, severe, extremity, calamity) and orange (signifying higher than “normal” alert). This way, there would only be three security alert levels:
    red = emergency
    orange = higher than normal alert
    no color code / status posted = unknown status, “lead your lives as normal”

    Green (for “low” and never used), blue (“guarded”, whatever that means) and yellow (“elevated”, again whatever that means) are of very little, if any, value and they cause confusion.

    Posting “green” or “blue” would be harmful. That would tell the terrorists that our guard is low and this is the time for them to act. So a low security status like “green” just cancels itself out the instant it is posted.

    Green, blue and and yellow should just be eliminated and merged into one “no posted color” signifying “unknown, go on with your normal lives.”

    In such a scenario, when “red” is posted, people should not fly unless it is critical enough for them to take a risk. “Orange” would signify caution. In fact, people should have general guidelines for how to behave when a status like orange or red is posted. Red, well, that would usually mean stay at home or in a safe place.

    Simplifying the system would at least make it less confusing than it is now.

  3. is Jim Bernard joking with you? sometimes i just can’t tell. it’s my experience that those who wish to limit our freedoms and impose tyrannical powers use effective strategies — label those who question the tactics of the government as being unpatriotic and anti-american, use the politics of fear to keep the people afraid and pliable. keep on speaking.

    a neighbor from minnetonka

    “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

    “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
    — Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

    “Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity, quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.”
    — Benito Mussolini

    “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis

  4. Rickdog: I’m sure Jim Bernard is joking. He’s a joker.

    Rajiv: I like your suggestion. Something like that would actually be useful, and could be used in decision making. For example, you would have sensible guidelines on when not to fly.

    Perhaps the whole point of the existing system is not to protect us at all. Or maybe I’m slightly crazy. :-)

  5. i believe you are right, it is not to protect us. it’s purpose, as you state in your post, is to keep us in fear. i think the administration’s track record over the last six years clearly indicates this.

  6. Jim, why don’t you support our troops?

    I was thinking about this yesterday, when I had to make two trips to the airport.

    Even dumber things about the color-coded warnings sign at the airport:

    1. They’re in the wrong order. Why is that blue there? Have these people never seen a rainbow?
    2. We will never be at green. Nobody is ever going to assume the political risk of putting the country at green and suffering an attack.
    3. It’s completely non-actionable. From a usability standpoint, there is no behavior that you’re going to alter when you see that sign. You’re already going to the airport. It’s too late to make any decisions around baggage. If the threat is bad enough that not flying is the right choice, then they’ll probably have grounded the planes anyway.
    4. “Significant” risk? “High” risk? In what universe is the risk levels of the last five years significant for a passenger on a plane? You’re safer after you get out of your car and into the airport.

  7. i don’t think it’s completely non-actionable. if it goes to red i’d probably turn the radio on to we what’s going on.

    i always laugh at the sign coming up to the airport on 494 – “Notice Something Suspicious? Please call …”

  8. I found myself in an airport again this morning. And now, in addition to the electronic sign outside of the airport stating “THREAT LEVEL ORANGE”, they have added a voice announcement in the airport announcing “The TSA currently has a threat level of orange.”

    This announcement isn’t from the typical friendly female voice. No, this is a male baritone announcing the danger that surrounds us.

    Be afraid, be very afraid.

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