Tuesday 13 April 2004

Fearmongering: The Brand

"It's Code Orange," said the Kennedy airport official, "we have to call back the plane." Code Orangeóhigh 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 accouterments, 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.

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