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Orange Holidays 

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We gave up on the notion of holidays as a time of relaxation long ago.

But imagine, if you will, this scene: With all shopping finally accounted for, a fatigued single mother throws away her to-do list, walks from the edge of a strip-mall sidewalk and into a sea of parking, then glides her key into the driver-side door. Only she never makes it to the driver’s seat. The force of a terrorist’s bomb blows her through the windshield. Clothes, electronics equipment and action-figure toys rain down on the parking lot. The mall she’d just visited is a flaming shell of stucco and carnage. Later that night, CNN excerpts an Al-Jazeera broadcast featuring an al-Qaeda chief deputy who warns of more on the way.

“Staying home for the holidays” has new meaning. In these color-coded days of domestic terrorism, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge has for the fifth time officially shifted us from the more mellow “yellow” alert level to the decidedly more tense “orange.” In other words, watch your back during after-Christmas sales and keep a watchful eye for anthrax in the eggnog. At the same time, Ridge tells us, “just go about your business.” Freak out, but not too much, and don’t forget to dial 911 if you see something suspicious during your morning commute.

Ever since it was implemented March 2002, Homeland Security’s color-coded terror alerts have seemed like a system in search of a clearly defined need rather than the other way around. Besides keeping in mind the fact that, today, we just might run the risk of getting blown to pieces or gassed in public transit, what else is there to do? Even the chance of getting hit by lightning is more avoidable.

Every orange alert sets in motion some $1 billion per week in extra security measures to protect our nation’s infrastructure and public works. That’s important, of course. Information is nice, too. Actually knowing that you stand a chance of being blown into your car’s windshield is a good thing. And you might as well decide now if that extra trip to the store is going to be worth it. But does anyone recall a lower-level blue or green alert? Surely there must be a lower level of panic somewhere in this new reality of terrorism inside our borders.

Whatever the color on the rainbow of terror, virtually everyone disregards these alerts. The terrorists themselves no doubt call off their plans once the alert’s been issued. That may be reason enough to have the system in place, even if the general public has little use for it.

President Bush got all his gloating time and more with Saddam’s graying beard staring down the nation. But clearly our president was having more fun with the sorry state of the former dictator’s personal hygiene. Iraq is safer with Saddam under guard. Meanwhile, if the alarms out of Homeland Security ring true, we’re still living under the pall of potential terror. Happy holidays, and be careful out there.

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