Monday, February 23, 2004

If You Read This, The Terrorists Win
In order to get into the building where I work, all employees must use an electronic ID badge to unlock the doors. You hold your badge close to a scanning device and, with a jaunty beep, it lets you in. This sophisticated barrier purports to enhance homeland security by keeping the bad guys out. Of course, within minutes of its installation, employees made it obsolete by doing what's known as "tailgating."

Being Kentuckians, we are polite. We were raised to say "please" and "thank you," let cars merge in traffic, and hold doors open for people. So if you are a terrorist and you want to get into our building, you don't have to break in or get a fake badge or hatch a sophisticated plot involving plastic surgery, rental trucks, or small aircraft. All you have to do is tailgate: walk behind an employee entering the building and he or she will hold the door open for you. He or she might even offer to help you carry your explosives.

But in the wake of the federal government's comforting, rainbow-hued alert system, we employees have been getting stern e-mails warning us not to tailgate. Instead, we are supposed to scan our badges, each and every one of us. So if I'm walking into the building along with another person -- no matter how well we know each other -- we are both supposed to scan. It doesn't matter if you're walking in with your spouse, your best friend from grade school, your boss, your fishing buddy, your mom, your attorney general or your own personal Jesus. Scan, scan, scan, scan, scan, scan, scan.

Because we employees like to make our own individual fashion statements with our badges, this can be tricky. Some wear them necklace-style, like on The West Wing, and bend forward slightly to scan them. Some wear them on their waistbands, using a retractable string to pull the badge up to the scanner. Some keep their badges on a retractable string inside their underpants and dramatically unzip their trousers, pull out the badge, scan it, and let it snap back in place. (That practice is discouraged; those badge edges are sharper than they look.) Some like to keep their badges in their back pockets and simply wave their asses at the scanner, letting it read right through the material. So, as you can imagine, rush hour can be quite the clumsy ballet.

Still, not tailgating seems to be a small price to pay for not getting blown to smithereens. I personally am more than willing to be down with the new American self-delusion security paradigm. So I always cheerfully scan my badge even if someone else holds the door open for me, to reassure him or her that I am allowed to work there and am in all likelihood not a terrorist, while making no promises about my level of disgruntlement (a badge-swipe can only do so much).

I believe that takes care of my part of the tailgating bargain, but what about other people who try to tailgate on me? Am I not supposed to hold open the door for them? What if it's a close friend or the guy I just carpooled with? I trusted him to drive. Shouldn't I trust him not to blow up the building? What if it's a disabled, elderly, pregnant co-worker carrying food for the homeless, supplies for the office blood drive and candy bars to send to the troops? Am I supposed to let the door slam in her face? That might be fine for you Bostonians or you Montpelierites, but that shit won't fly in Kentucky.

Plus, being shy and non-confrontational, I'm not sure I can work up the nerve to tell somebody else he or she can't sneak in on my badge-swipe. Heck, I'm usually too much of a pussy to tell the loudmouth in the movies to pipe down or the teenager at the Bets 'n' Butts Fuel Center to put out that cigarette before he blows us all to kingdom come. I'm sorry, America, but I'm afraid if it's up to me to tell the next Mohammed Atta to hand over the box cutter, we are all fucked. When I say, "Let's Roll," I mean into the fetal position.

So what I need to know is this: Is my government asking me not to be polite or shy? I sincerely admire the efforts of those fighting the war against terror, but exactly what is expected of *me?*

I decided to visit some government Web sites to try to find out. One site, Ready.Gov has tons of advice on how we regular ol' citizens can prepare for a terror attack. For instance, it offers this helpful suggestion to prepare for a nuclear holocaust: "Plan to speak with your health care provider in advance about what makes sense for your family."

Of course, considering that most health care providers can't agree on what causes headaches, obesity or interest in NASCAR, I probably won't bank on my doctor's ability to give advice regarding nuclear war:

Me: My knee's been acting up when I jog. Also, what makes the most sense for my family if there's a nuclear blast?

Doctor: It's difficult to say for sure, but I think they're both indications that jogging is not right for you.

Over on the government's Radiation Threat page, there's this helpful advice to follow if you're worried about a dirty bomb: "... you should watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet often for official news and information as it becomes available."

Gee, I never would have thought of that. That is downright comforting. Especially because I'm reminded what a great source of reliable, factual information the Internet is. Plus, I'm told there are tits. I don't know about you, but they always make me feel better.

And what about the kids? If we're going to establish a national awareness of the increasing risks of terror and the decreasing need for politeness, we're going to have to start teaching kids early. Fortunately, The Corporation for National and Community Service is on that. According to a press release, "The Corporation believes that young people are an important untapped resource that can be engaged to help address a range of problems, including the growing challenges associated with homeland security and disaster preparedness and response." I'm thinking Teletubby nuclear-radiation shields and Boobah smallpox filters.

But try as I might, I could not find comprehensive guidelines on tailgating. Even a thorough analysis of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001 and the Acronyms Can Really Obscure Nefarious Yes Men (ACRONYM) Act of 2003 turned up nothing.

Then, bleary eyed from all the browsing, I began to wonder: Are these Web sites really designed to help us loyal, patriotic Americans combat terrorism? Who's got time to do all this research and prepare in advance, when there are so many reality TV shows to watch and so much shopping to do?

Could it be -- gasp! -- that these sites are really just bait for terrorists?! Could the CIA and the FBI be investigating the IP addresses of people who visit them? And -- Oh, no! I *have those sites open on my screen right now!* And, hey, who's that at the door?! Ow! OWW! STOPPIT! ... Ow! Ow! I WAS ONLY TRYING TO HELP! Oww! I SWEAR I'm not a terrorist! .. Ow! l;lahgn eirtugv;hs;mtmvyhecvs;tj;ldsv. gggg pfh.. nnnnnnnnnn