February 18, 2003

U of C EMP passes muster

Recent days have seen the practical debut of the color-coded terrorism alert system devised by the Department of Homeland Security. The system has been in place for some months, but the overwhelming novelty of prior alerts reduced their immediacy to that of a dress rehearsal. But with the increasing inescapability of armed conflict in Iraq and speculation that the Islamic religious holiday of Hajj might fuel new attacks, the past week's orange alert has spiked duct tape sales, cleared subways, and motivated the University of Chicago to review its own Emergency Management Plan. University administrators recently explained that the EMP is in place to deal with an attack or comparable disaster, but no plans are pending to send any general warnings to the students and staff. A superficial examination shows that the U of C's scheme for dealing with terrorism may be short on blanket warnings, but it is long on discretion as the better part of horse sense. No mass e-mailings are planned. The University's planning is mostly contingencies in the event of attack.

While the risks of apathy towards terrorist threats are manifest, the risks of premature action may be underrated. It may be difficult to descry the harms of sending out simple warning e-mails to the student body, but University officials have demonstrated a willingness to adhere to principle instead. Whether or not the orange alert--doubted in sincerity by some--constitutes emotional gerrymandering on a national scale, the University of Chicago has signaled fear. While the University, as a target for terrorists, seems a bit "softer" than other major universities, minimizing or ignoring warnings is foolhardy. At the same time, a complete failure to prepare for the possibility of attack, however unlikely it may appear, is no more than mulish ignorance.

The pervasive question of terrorism writ large does not easily dovetail with the subtleties of local preparations against potential attack. As easy as it would be to send out a mass e-mail like any other bit of pedestrian academic information, such a gesture would serve only to perturb the population, without offering tangible benefits. At the risk of being embarrassed by historical hindsight, the University has, for the time being, chosen the middle road in preparing for the unthinkable. While their measured response may not placate all, their dedication to preparation without feeding into an increasing social phobia deserves praise.