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Let's get specific about these nonspecific threats

The national terror alert is yellow, downgraded from orange, correct?

According to the people who issue these alerts — the same folks who advised us to stock up on the duct tape and plastic sheeting so we might hermetically seal ourselves into our homes in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack — the threat of an imminent terrorist attack on U.S. soil has eased somewhat.

"The lowering of the threat level is not a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is passed," Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a joint statement Thursday.

I'm not exactly sure if Utah was even on "orange alert," having heard some talking head on television the other day explain that the Beehive State wasn't as much of a target as big cities and the coast and therefore we could consider ourselves on "yellow alert."

Does this mean I didn't need the plastic and the duct tape, after all?

Sometimes I feel as though I'm operating in a fog. The government never really explains these changes in the alert pallet. And if I ever got close enough to Ashcroft to ask, he'd probably say something like "These are, after all, matters of national security, and if we told you, little missy, we'd have to seal you in plastic wrap and duct tape."

I don't expect specific details. I just wish I had a better sense of who was behind the screen calling these shots. And I wish I understood what "nonspecific threat" means, because our government's been telling us since Sept. 12, 2001, to be on the lookout for them.

I know this sounds glib, but I doubt I'm the only person out there who has difficulty operating in this vagary. If I had a better idea what to look out for and how to protect myself and my family, I'd do it. The problem is, I don't even know what this bogeyman looks like.

I've been assembling emergency supplies here and there. But I almost hesitate to do it because my children fret over it. We assure them that it's a good idea to set this stuff aside in case of an earthquake or some other emergency. But they're old enough to understand there are enormous tensions in the Middle East and the Pacific Rim. I'd prefer they believe that those conflicts will occur in some faraway place, not creep across the threshold of the front door of their house.

Part of the hesitation by officials to be more specific is that some self-appointed "patriot" might take it upon himself to try to avenge the evil in the world. Remember the guy who set the Curry-in-a-Hurry restaurant on fire following the Sept. 11 attacks? Unbridled fear can make people do some pretty irrational things.

Remember the widespread power outage in Utah and Wyoming a couple of weeks ago? The minute the power went out, people in my husband's workplace were speculating terrorists had something to do with it. Power outages might occur for any number of reasons, but in 2003 terrorism is automatically the culprit for any phenomenon that is out of the ordinary. Most of the power outages I covered in my reporting days were tied to the weather and/or a vehicle plowing into a power pole. Once, a squirrel in the wrong place at the wrong time blacked out Logan for a few hours.

But I understand why this happens. We've been on edge so long that it's practically a habit to take quantum leaps in logic. Witness the people who died in a Chicago nightclub last week. When security guards dispensed pepper spray to break up a fight, somebody started yelling that it was a "terrorist attack," according to published reports. A panicked stampede to the exit ensued, resulting in the deaths of 21 people who either suffocated or were crushed.

It didn't help, of course, that this club was operating illegally. Last summer, city officials ordered the club's landlord to stop using the second floor of the establishment because of housing code violations. According to a lawsuit, the city failed to make sure its doors remained shut.

But in our efforts to be diligent, some people lose the capacity to be calm, rational, thinking human beings. My feeling is that sensibility will go further in keeping me and my family alive in the event of an emergency than anything I've stocked in our emergency stash.

Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret News editorial writer.