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OPINIONS 101: Orange Alerts, Airplanes, and the Manipulation of Fear

January 2, 2004

Tonight I figured it out. I figured out the secret behind the ORANGE ALERT, that mysterious code that is synonymous with placing us all on a HIGH TERROR ALERT. But before I disclose this shocking, controversial information, I must first issue my own ORANGE ALERT warning:

Okay, don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Here’s the deal. New Year ’s Eve has come and gone. I’d wish you a happy 2004, but let’s face it, it’s election year and I’m still waiting for the recount of the last election. But I digress. As to the final hours of 2003, it’s reasonable to assume that those who drink excessively got excessively drunk; those who party partied like it was 1999; and those who like to crash planes into buildings in major metropolitan US cities—well, those folks didn’t crash anything, except perhaps a few parties. But guess what? We’re still on ORANGE TERROR ALERT. Perhaps our government’s Department of Homeland InSecurity feels the lurking terrorists are still waiting…still waiting for that perfect opportunity to hijack an Airbus and plow it into Caesar’s Palace or the Golden Nugget. But to all of you wanna be Abraham Zapruders out there, I think you’re gonna have to purchase a few more lithium batteries if you’re keeping your camcorders on stand by. Planes are NOT going to fly into buildings. I repeat—there are going to be no more planes hitting skyscrapers.

How can I be so sure of this? What magical crystal ball have I been looking into that has given me such second sight, such clairvoyance? Call it an instinct. But don’t let Tom Ridge know. His office really wants to keep the fear levels high.

Meanwhile in New York, the development of the new Trade Center is eminent. In an effort to prove its penile gigantism, the new “Freedom Tower” will purportedly be the TALLEST BUILDING IN THE WORLD!!! Can you say, "Mine is bigger than yours?" All this, with an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion. That means oodles and oodles of jobs. Big, juicy and delicious contracts to be fulfilled by tough, strapping men and buxom women. And that means a President who is seeking reelection will be able to say to his voting public, “You see, the economy is on the rise. Look at these numbers! Check out these economic indicators. Look at Wall Street! God bless the United States of America.”

And while we’re at it, let’s look at the dollar’s value on the international trade market. With the US once again heavily indebted to foreign countries, the greenback is far more pale in color and lighter in weight than it was a few years ago. In 2003 the US dollar’s value declined by 30% vs. the Euro; it also declined against many other currencies including an estimated 21% decline versus the Swiss franc. But that’s okay. We’ve got tons of great jobs in the US, everything from Wal-Mart to K-Mart, from McDonald’s to KFC. And remember, we’re the largest creditor nation in the world. That’s right. We’re number 1! So let’s kick back, super-size our order, and watch as The Rock dispenses his own brand of justice in the forthcoming remake of Jo Don Baker’s WALKING TALL.

But I was going to talk about ORANGE ALERT, wasn’t I? So sorry.

I am sure there are many, many ORANGE ALERT-related scams, all geared at taking money from Joe Average taxpayers like you and me. Here is one I learned about tonight; one that dug into my own well-gouged pocket book. Around 7:00 pm, Di had gone to pick up her sister at LAX. In the last month we’ve been to LAX more times than Joe Camel has had his lungs diagnosed with cancer. One thing to know about LAX, as airports go, it’s one of the most driver-friendly you’ll find. Essentially, it’s a big ‘ol circle. Compared to airports such as the M. C. Esher-inspired Philadelphia International, LAX is a kindergarten-level connect-the-dots puzzle. Except for the traffic. The traffic is kind of heavy, and the driving track has six or more lanes at any given time. There are taxis, airport shuttle buses, rental car agency shuttles, city buses, pedestrians, and several thousand cars, trucks, and SUVs on the track at any given time. There are traffic lights and stop signs. There are police—everywhere, there are police. And apparently, during this all-important time of ORANGE ALERT, there is a blinking sign somewhere along the track that warns drivers that passenger vehicles may NOT pull into the drop off/pick up areas to drop off or pick up passengers (which is, ya know, kind of the POINT of the drop off/pick up areas). But under ORANGE ALERT levels, these pathways are reserved for the likes of taxis and shuttle buses. After all, in the history of mankind a taxi has never been loaded up with explosives and turned loose on an unsuspecting crowd. Nope. That type of crazy behavior is reserved for persons who drive PASSENGER VEHICLES ONLY.

Okay, so here is the situation. You are driving to the airport to pick up your relative. You are driving around LAX at night and negotiating six lanes of traffic. You are trying to avoid taxis and buses that cut you off without so much as fair warning. And apparently there is a flashing sign cautioning you not to pull into the pick up lanes, but you don’t see these because you’re trying to drive and not become involved in a motor vehicle accident. So you spot your sister and pull into the pick up lane. Her bags are inside the hatch in 3.2 seconds. She is in the passenger side of the car 2.5 seconds later and you are both on your way home. That’s when the red and blue lights of LA’s fattest pull you over with an efficiency that would make the Keebler elves look like total slackers. Here’s how they do it (it’s a 2-step plan that’s been practiced to Olympic perfection):
Step 1: Cop A pulls up behind your vehicle and signals you to pull off to the side.
Step 2: Cop B is standing at curbside. He’s already started writing the ticket. He mentions the flashing neon warning sign and asks why you didn’t bother to heed it. You counter with several protests, not the least of which is, “I didn’t see the alleged flashing sign warning me not to pull into the passenger pick up zone.”
Your protests are ignored and you are told, as if you were a child: “WE’RE ON ORANGE ALERT. YOU CAN’T DRIVE A CAR IN HERE WHEN WE’RE ON ORANGE ALERT. TAXIS AND SHUTTLES ONLY.”
You’re sent on your way with a ticket. No room for warnings in America. We must LEARN A LESSON HERE. We must NOT be evil terrorists who drive into passenger pick up areas to pick up our fellow terrorist siblings. Total cost of this lesson: $65.00. For that much, we could have rented Di’s sister a limousine and she could have ridden back to Venice in style.

So what’s my point already?

My point is, under any other alert other than ORANGE (and presumably RED), you can drive up to LAX or any other airport in the nation and pick up or drop off a passenger (or passengers). But under ORANGE ALERT, you have but two choices:

Choice 1: Let your friend or loved one find their own way back into town.
Choice 2: Pull into the overnight parking lot, and be charged a minimum of $3.00.

Granted, $3.00 is a helluva lot cheaper than $65.00, but that really isn’t the point. Di was but one of hundreds of motorists who were likely ticketed at LAX today for the same sorry reason. Multiply that by the number of days we’ve been on ORANGE ALERT since 9/11. Then multiply that by the number of airports in the United States. We’re being gouged for our own “protection.” Why a flashing neon sign that can only be viewed while driving? Why not stop points at each drop off/pick up location? Well, not only would that be too easy, but if you think of all the revenue that would be lost the answer is obvious. But maybe that isn’t really the point either. Maybe the point is that no matter how you slice it, another piece of the CIVIL LIBERTY pie is being taken away from us, and it is the average citizen who is being punished every time the Homeland InSecurity Office decides to raise the panic level. Does Tom Ridge and the Homeland Insecurity Office really think they are curtailing terrorism every time they raise the terror level to ORANGE?

And whatever happened to covert actions? Why is our government able to fly its Commander-in-Chimp in and out of Iraq on Turkey Day without anyone’s knowledge? Oh, we certainly had it shoved down our throats like an unwanted drumstick once the reporters and myriad of camera persons were given the go-ahead to start the media blitz. But prior to that, we didn’t have a clue. So why isn’t this same government deterring terrorism with this level of covertness? Why are we being TOLD we’re on ORANGE ALERT? Why doesn’t Tom Ridge and his cronies simply do the job of PREVENTING TERRORISM? Why does Ridge constantly feel the need to jerk the levels up and down with the fevered enthusiasm of a prepubescent boy with his first Playboy magazine?

Here’s why:

It’s easier for Ridge, Bush, and the rest of the bureaucracy of fear to continue to remind us that we are NOT SAFE. Land of the free? Home of the brave? Not anymore. We’ve become the land of the paranoid and the home of the afraid. And kiddies, its only going to get worse. Our currency’s value is shrinking like the proverbial Shrinky Dink. We are no longer fostering good relations with foreign nations. We’ve become the big bully of the world, and let’s face it—no one likes a bully.

But I reassured Di. I told her to relax. We realized that if we sell just 3 of 4 of our Christmas presents on e-bay we can offset the $65.00 ticket. Fa la la la la, la la la la—fun! And the truth is, it’s only going to get worse. We’ve not yet seen the truly mobile suicide bomber, the ones who load their bodies up with explosives and walk into crowded shopping centers or restaurants. I don’t want to see those days, but I don’t think they’re too far ahead, and once the killings begin you can say goodbye to dangerous metal flatware at restaurants and start anticipating metal detectors when you visit your local Wal-Mart or Burger King. Of course, if things get really bad, the paranoid in this nation will begin mass-producing metal detectors. One day our children might have a General Electric metal detector on their front doors to protect themselves from dangerous felons and terrorists who, as the intelligence departments know and remind us, are lurking and waiting to strike.

Meanwhile, as our nation’s education funding erodes like a California mudslide, I feel COMPLETELY SAFE in knowing that Mr. Ridge will be spending $352.5 million in grants to “secure America’s ports” and “…to help state and local governments better prepare to respond to all hazards and enhance preparedness activities and emergency management.” About $9 million in grant money was provided by the City of Los Angeles. The irony, of course, is that if you try dialing 9-1-1 in Los Angeles, you’re likely to be put on hold or receive a message asking you to call back later. I know. I’ve called 9-1-1 from LA. Click here for a complete list of corporations and cities contributing $179,025,900 to ensure, as Ridge states, “…the freedom of mobility and economic growth.” Personally I’m more worried about catching a stray bullet off the corner of 6th and Brooks, but sure, let’s put some shiny new boats in the water and keep evil away. No problem.

It’s times like these that I’m glad I live close to an ocean. There’s something very calming about walking a few blocks to the boardwalk and stepping across the soft sand to the reach edge of the Pacific, staring past the breakers and out across the vast horizon, knowing that the US is but one tiny, frightened nation, knowing that there are other lands to visit, other places to live. I’d rather not paint with such a black and white palette, but lately the colors seem to be fewer and fewer.

Next: Mid-Life Crisis continues, possibly.

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