Fearmongering: The Brand
“It’s Code Orange,” said the Kennedy airport official, “we have to call back the plane.” Code Orange—high risk of terrorist attack on the Homeland Security Advisory System—meant that a flight to Paris that had left an hour earlier with my suitcase mistakenly loaded in its cargo section had to turn around. It was past midnight when the 747 rolled back to the gate under police searchlights. Though innocent—it was their bungle, not mine—I was tightly escorted by two armed attendants as I watched the scene from the terminal’s bay windows. A dozen paratroopers surrounded the plane, machine guns at the ready. Security guards carrying cell phones paced with their dogs on the tarmac, purposely supervising an emergency maintenance crew that had been dispatched to sort through mountains of luggage to find my misplaced suitcase. At long last it was located, unzipped and searched—my personal belongings duly scrutinized by two detectives wearing protective gloves and goggles.
There was something obscene about the commotion: the deployment, the accoutrements, the weapons, the uniforms, the electronic badges, the heavy equipment, not to mention the extra fuel and the expenditure in employee overtime. But you can never be too safe. No wonder terrorism readiness is big business. Fear is a powerful profit engine for purveyors of defense and surveillance technology, services and material.
I might be wrong, but historians will probably study the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s current propaganda campaign—its color-coded “Threat Advisory System,” its “Get Ready Now” citizen awareness crusade, its “Don’t Be Afraid” website—and wonder how the architects of the program were able to get away with such a blatantly sadistic approach. Under the pretext of safeguarding the public’s welfare, DHS’s policy makers are tormenting anguished Americans with safety recommendations so wasteful, so overblown, yet so lame, it defeats comprehension.
Engineering consent didn’t used to be a barefaced commercial operation. In the past, insidious persuasion required a certain artistic flair. Recall the visual inventiveness of Jean Carlu’s posters for the Office of War Information or the compelling expressiveness of Abrams Games’s advertisements for the British War Office. During WWI and WWII, propaganda produced posters powerful enough to galvanize a nation. Whether using realistic illustrations, like Flagg’s famous 1917 “I Want You For The U.S. Army” with Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, or modernist photomontages, like Herbert Matter’s 1941 “America Calling” Civil Defense eagle, the images pulled all the stops to coerce and seduce at the same time. Rosie the Riveter, where are you?
The most notable characteristic of the DHS campaign is the stultifying effect of its cumulative banality. Its centerpiece, the Advisory System, is a colored graph showing five levels of alarm—Low, Guarded, Elevated, High, and Severe.
The graphic icon looks like a circuit breaker panel, and rightly so. Its function, it seems to me, is to create a disconnect between preparedness and paranoia. Are the “Threat Conditions” and their suggested “Protective Measures” based on reliable information or on inflated intelligence reports? No one knows. But forewarned is forearmed. “Terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be afraid. Or we can be ready,” says Tom Ridge, DHS’s top official.
Only one thing is sure: the $100 million campaign Ridge launched in February 2003 to support his “Get Ready” crusade strives to alienate people from their emotions. Ostensibly promoting readiness as an alternative to fear, it describes doomsday scenarios in dispassionate language the way airlines describe the procedures to follow in the event of sudden cabin depressurization or emergency water landing. Lengthy tutorials dwell on cataclysmic disasters with steely military detachment, listing biological, chemical and radiation threats in the same breath as nuclear blasts.
The campaign, masterminded by Ruder-Finn Interactive as a pro bono initiative for the Ad Council, gives me the impression of being deliberately designed to numb the senses. The website, Ready.gov, presents guidelines to help Americans figure out what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Prosaic cartoons describe how to create a panic room at home (a technique called “sheltering-in-place”), what to do if you are exposed to radiation from a “dirty bomb” (remove your clothes), or where to take cover during a nuclear explosion (under your desk or in a fallout shelter, if you can find one!). The protagonist of these “airtoons”—a term coined by internet humorists to describe airline safety-card characters—is a white man wearing khaki pants and a polo shirt. A listless, emotionless “pod” figure, he is right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Cold War propaganda film classic. In fact, the entire website is eerily reminiscent of that period. Its commonplace safety recommendations (“Store food that won’t go bad”) could be lifted from a Federal Civil Defense Administration manual from the 1950s.
Yet, back then, in the glory days of the Red Scare, a little fun was allowed. To promote its famous Duck and Cover campaign, the Civil Defense created Bert the Turtle, the cheery and bow-tied cartoon character who instructed schoolchildren to duck under their tiny desks as if under a turtle shell during nuclear safety drills. No such moments of levity are permitted in the current administration’s concerted effort to galvanize the public opinion. The ready.gov collateral brochure that will soon be shipped to every U.S. household is a dour document spelling out the same trivial recommendations as the website (“Be prepared to improvise with what you have on hand to make it on your own for at least three days, maybe longer.”). It features photographs of law-abiding citizens staring ahead with calm determination against a predictably fluttering background of stars and stripes.
Rational minds have a simple explanation for this display of quiet hysteria. The DHS’s Threat Advisory System and the readiness crusade are in fact part of a legal maneuver—they constitute a covert disclaimer that would make it difficult for individuals to sue the government for liability in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack. A reassuring hypothesis of sorts, this theory overlooks a couple of disturbing facts.
First, Ruder-Finn’s involvement raises a red flag. Sure, with its formidable experience as a public relations firm and ad agency for business and institutions, including government entities, it is logical that it would be hired for the DHS campaign. With fourteen offices around the world, it has an impressive list of clients, from the governments of Turkey, Latvia and Moldova to Hugh Electronics and the Gallup Organization. But unfortunately, the company has the dubious honor of being at the center of a nasty internet conspiracy uproar. In internet postings questioning the assertions of a recent BBC documentary titled The Fall of Milosevic, Ruder-Finn is accused of mounting a PR campaign to demonize Milosevic in the early 1990s, before the war in the Balkans. Why? As the theory goes, the U.S. government wanted to remove the Yugoslavian leader because he was opposing trade agreements promoting a free market economy in the region.
In a revealing October 1993 interview with French television journalist Jacques Merlino from TV2, James Harff, then a Ruder-Finn director in Washington, D.C., boasted about what he called a public relations “coup.” “Speed is vital,” he stated to explain why unsubstantiated intelligence accusing Milosevic of organizing Bosnian death camps had been fed to the press by Ruder-Finn. “It is the first assertion that really counts. All future denials are entirely ineffective.” Ruder-Finn’s selection for Tom Ridge’s preparedness campaign throws a shadow on the project, particularly when you consider the way the present administration has a record of using faulty intelligence and hasty accusations to justify its actions and deter its opposition.
More telling, perhaps, is the Department of Homeland Security’s own website. It is rife with business opportunities in the defense and technology sectors. Within a couple of clicks, you can find information on how to get involved rebuilding Iraq, investigating the anthrax scare, working in concert with the Coast Guard to protect our borders, developing sensors to detect weapons of mass destruction, or doing research in computer security. If that’s not enough, google “Homeland Security” and you will stumble on more than two million related websites offering journals, newsletters, guides, products, job and contract opportunities, solutions and courses in terrorism warfare. Scroll down past the government agency sites and click Twotigersonline.com. Bingo. This is your portal into an abyss of paranoia. Fill your cart with Geiger counters, detector kits, prefab fallout shelters, supplies of potassium iodine and stocks in companies that manufacture fire resistant materials, maritime security devices and surveillance gadgets.
I might be wrong, but historians will probably conclude that the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded alert system is an invention not unlike the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the Nasdaq Index. Rather than being based on intelligence reports, it is merely an indicator of how defense and surveillance stocks are doing. The accompanying public awareness campaign, they might also decide, was just a branding exercise designed to convince the public that fearmongering is a great American business proposition. No need to get upset. Emotions are counterproductive. Terror management is a profitable innovation whose key products are national security and prosperity at home.