On Alert


"Our military at home and around the world is on high alert status and we have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government." President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001

"People have asked, what should we do, and I say, go to work, take your child to school. If you've got a softball game or a soccer game this afternoon, go to the game. The President is going to the baseball game tonight. America has to continue to be America. And what terrorists try to do is instill such uncertainty, such fear, such hesitation that you don't do things that you normally do. And all we're saying with the general alert is, continue to live your lives, continue to be America, but be aware, be alert, be on guard." Gov. Tom Ridge, October 30, 2001

"We wage a war to save civilization itself. We did not seek it. But we will fight it. And we will prevail. This is a different war from any our nation has ever faced. A war on many fronts against terrorists who operate in more than 60 different countries. And this is a war that must be fought not only overseas but also here at home. I recently spoke to high school students in Maryland and realized that for the first time ever these seniors will graduate in the midst of a war in our own country.....Let's roll." President Bush, November 8, 2001


We have all been enlisted and mobilized for a long war.

Reporters have repeatedly asked government officials to be more specific about what they mean when they announce that Americans should be on a higher state of alert than before September 11.

In the U.S. government, there is a scale of terrorist Force Protection Conditions (FPCON)--

Threat Condition Normal: no threat of terrorist activity is present

Threat Condition Alpha: there is a general threat of possible terrorist activity against installations, building locations, and/or personnel, the nature and extent of which are unpredictable.
Threat Condition Bravo: There is an increased and more predictable threat of terrorist activity even though no particular target has been identified.
Threat Condition Charlie: An incident has occurred or intelligence has been received indicating some form of terrorist action is imminent
Threat Condition Delta: A terrorist attack has occurred or intelligence has been received that action against a specific location is likely."

There is another scale of U.S. military alerts.

"Defense readiness conditions (DEFCONs) describe progressive alert postures primarily for use between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of unified commands. DEFCONs are graduated to match situations of varying military severity, and are numbered 5,4,3,2, and 1 as appropriate. DEFCONs are phased increases in combat readiness. In general terms, these are descriptions of DEFCONs:
DEFCON 5 Normal peacetime readiness
DEFCON 4 Normal, increased intelligence and strengthened security measures
DEFCON 3 Increase in force readiness above normal readiness
DEFCON 2 Further Increase in force readiness, but less than maximum readiness
DEFCON 1 Maximum force readiness.
"In the event of a national emergency, a series of seven different alert Conditions (LERTCONs) can be called. The 7 LERTCONs are broken down into 5 Defense Conditions (DEFCONs) and 2 Emergency Conditions (EMERGCONs)."

I suspect that these scales guided what President Bush and Governor Ridge, Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller had in mind when they talked about heightened states of alert. But they haven't said so, and since most of us don't know these systems (I had to look them up), we are left trying to figure out what sound like cryptic, ambiguous and ominous statements.

"Let's roll" is a call to action. It sounds convivial. It's also code, a militarization of the idioms of our life. We're not used to it. We are raw recruits.

There are no precedents for this in American history except maybe when the British burned the White House in 1814, before it was painted white. (It would be awkward to discuss that now.)

I am reminded of movies about the democratic Resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War, but that was not the same. They were civilians secretly operating against military forces from another country who were occupying their country. On September 11, the United States was attacked by guerrillas from an international ideological/theocratic movement, not by a country, as far as we know. For the comparison to be valid, we would be under hostile occupation now.

As an American, I am on a state of high alert much of the time. I tend to be alert to inequities, discrimination, intolerance, injustice, restriction of liberty. "Give me liberty or give me death," was Patrick Henry's cry. "Live Free or Die" is New Hampshire's motto.

I am alert to affronts to democracy. My American nervous system is on alert, like a smoke detector, to tell me of dangers and threats. I have American sensors, receptors, antennae. They are set to pick up any trace of insults and injuries to the American way of life.

We Americans have a sensitivity to mistreatment of people, to bias, prejudice, abridgements of democratic principles. We've got 10 of them in our secular form of the Ten Commandments of Moses. But more than this bill of particulars, our Bill of Rights, we have additional rights. They include the Declaration of Independence's "inalienable rights"--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

They probably include Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms-

"The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
"The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
"The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
"The fourth is freedom from fear -- which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world."
(Jan. 6, 1941)

In addition to such explicit statements, we are concerned about other rights that are implicit. And we are alert to them as well. Social conscience is one form of our patriotism.

A patriot of democracy believes in disagreement, in unpopular ideas, thoughts, and opinions. What is unpatriotic is mob behavior, complacency, conformity, when everyone does the same thing.

Dissent is at the core of Americanism. It is how we became a country in the 1770s. It is what distinguishes us from many other countries. We call it freedom. "With liberty and justice for all" is what we say every time we Pledge Allegiance to the flag, which also means to our ideals. It is a way of renewing our vows.

Terrorism is an assault on our ideals, on democracy, on peace. The high school seniors President Bush mentioned are looking at many years of antipathy towards America, antagonism, anti-American sentiment turned lethal.

In the human body there are levels of defense against attack. These have to do with antibodies mobilizing against antigens. It is our biochemical homeland defense. In DSM4 there is clinical discussion about individual defense mechanisms. That's what is happening in our body politic.

There is also a "fight or flight" condition.

One source says, "Once the fight or flight reaction is activated, our body will react in many ways. These are noticeable changes which include increase in heartbeat rate, coronary arteries dilate, higher blood pressure, increase in muscle tension (muscle bracing), the pituitary gland activates oxytocin and vasopressin, moisture on the skin, dilated pupils, dilation of the bronchial tubes, hydrochloric acid is secreted into the stomach, glucose is released from the liver, and the basal metabolic rate increases. The white blood cells are lowered also which decreases the effectiveness of the immune system, which may make it vulnerable to disease-causing microbes and degenerative disease."

It takes a lot to penetrate our insulation, our national immune system, to get our attention.

"Afghanistan ranks number one worldwide in maternal mortality. One in four Afghan children will not make it to their fifth birthday. One in three Afghan children is an orphan. Almost 1/2 of Afghan children suffer chronic malnutrition. Millions face the threat of starvation."--White House web site.

In the name of consensus unity some people are not talking about their reservations and misgivings about carpet bombing and cluster bombing in Afghanistan. There may be no bombing pause for Ramadan, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Will there be a bombing pause for Christmas? What about "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men?"

Where do we go from here? Alert, alerter, alertest.

November 9, 2001

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