Alerts, Not Alarms, Please

A parent tells a child to buckle up. A police officer waves drivers away from a ditch. A TV report issues an alert about a storm.

Daily life is filled with such clues about potential dangers. People learn to safeguard themselves and move on, putting fear in the context of prevention, worry within a ring of hope.

But drastic warnings issued this week by top US officials – that another big terrorist attack in the US is "inevitable" – may only evoke the very fear terrorists want, and create a mood of helplessness that's unhelpful.

It's like crying "fire" in a movie theater with no exits. It's dead-end doom and gloom that's unbecoming of anyone calling himself a leader.

This new kind of warning is a stark shift from the confidence of President Bush soon after Sept. 11, when he set in motion the war in Afghanistan, started a series of security measures at home, and told Americans to go about their normal lives. The new, alarming words came with no color-coding that ranks the threat, not even a shade of doubt.

Contrast that gloominess to the wartime speeches of great leaders like Winston Churchill, whose first statement as prime minister to the House of Commons in 1940 evoked hope: "Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be."

The unspoken sentiment behind such words is that life, not certain death, is the predictable reality. Dread can only make its own dreadful reality and has no place among people who understand they can master fear with a resolve to embrace its opposite, the love of life.

As Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge says, Americans need to be alert but not alarmed. Choosing the right words to keep that balance is the mark of leaders during a crisis.

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