Duct Tape and Plastic Sheets?

Disclaimer: Since writing this rant, it has come to my attention that both Home Depot and MacGyver were mentioned in a Jay Leno monologue on this topic last week. I’m not sure what’s worse: having people think I ripped off Jay Leno, or having people know I didn’t rip off Jay Leno — I just came up with the same jokes.

Recently, for approximately the 574th time since September 11, 2001, the federal government announced that, in response to vague and highly-guarded “intelligence” of undisclosed (and hence almost inherently dubious) origin, our “national terror alert” status would again be raised from the level 3 “code yellow” to level 2 “code orange.” Judging by the public’s general apathy or utter unawareness of this change, I would be inclined to say that the terror alert status codes have lost all meaning, but that would imply that they had meaning in the first place.

This time things seem a bit more serious than usual, however. Security is being beefed up in public places, both prominent and ridiculously inconsequential. Police are carrying gas masks. And the government has sternly advised citizens to safeguard their homes and their families by stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, to seal their windows and doors in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Mmmmm… that’s goooood homeland security! Let me guess: In the Bush Administration’s modus operandi of stacking agency leadership posts with business executives, Tom Ridge’s assistant directors include former CEOs of plastics and adhesives manufacturers. This monolithic, Orwellian agency was created to protect the public from terrorist dangers, but when we’re actually faced with those dangers, the best they can come up with is a MacGyver-esque suggestion for us to do the job ourselves? Oh, and it’s an economic stimulus package, too… at least for our new “defensive sticky substances” industry!

I don’t mean to make light of what terrorists have done in the past, or of the potential for future action as bad as, or far worse than, what we’ve seen to date. But the thought of Americans by the millions responding to ill-defined dangers by racing to Home Depot to fight over rapidly dwindling supplies of these staples of modern ingenuity is, well, laughable.

Today we are confronted with a threat of unspeakable proportions, and yet the chance that any given one of us will actually succumb to such acts of terror is minuscule. Facing the remote-in-the-extreme odds of a horrible-in-the-extreme catastrophe, the government of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet tells its populace of hundreds of millions to defend itself with… duct tape and plastic sheets.

I am reminded of public service films produced at the height of the Cold War, showing school children responding in an orderly and disciplined fashion to the announcement that a nuclear attack is underway by kneeling under their desks and folding their hands over their heads.

I experienced those civil defense drills myself in elementary school during the dying days of the Cold War, the early 1980s. By then, we were no longer being led to believe that a Formica desktop and the feeble flesh and bones of our hands would protect us from the extreme heat and force of a nuclear blast, or from the subsequent radioactive fallout. Nuclear war was never even mentioned. I, at least, always believed that these drills were simply preparing us to deal with the inevitable eventuality of the school being flattened by a tornado — a far more present threat in the great wind-swept expanse of the American Midwest.

With the end of the Cold War, the monthly tests of air-raid sirens and the Emergency Broadcast System on TV and radio became a fading memory, and the omnipresent fear (and feeble means of personal self-defense) became almost-trite memories of a bygone day. Many of us spent most of the ’90s in a hazy delusion that a more “enlightened” time without war and mass violence was upon us, at least in America and much of Europe.

But now we’re back to constant fear — a slowly simmering, nagging feeling that at any moment, disaster, a disaster like none we’ve ever considered, could strike. We know the chance of that actually happening is fairly remote, and that gamble is what keeps us going.

Then something like this happens. When we’re inescapably presented with the futility of our efforts at safeguarding ourselves, the real danger we face becomes apparent.

The truth is, no matter how many billions of dollars the government spends on Homeland Security, no matter how much our civil liberties are eroded in the name of public safety, and no matter how many layers of plastic we duct tape to our windows, there is no way to guarantee safety.

Life is inherently risky, but in that risk comes the vitality, the urgency, that makes life worth living.

If we spend all of our time obsessing over how to protect ourselves from every nebulous threat that exists in the world, we lose no matter what. Even if we do fend off those daily threats, no one defeats old age in the end.

So stop fretting. Get out there and live.

And leave the plastic sheets and duct tape for me.