Art of the State

In the fraught months after 9/11, the United States began to adjust to a new security environment. For many, the comforting notion of two protective oceans was gone. In its stead, an America under perpetual threat emerged.

One of the key images in this shift was the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS). Colour-coded, the HSAS depicted five lateral rectangles, stacked one

upon the other. From top to bottom, the sections were coloured red, orange, yellow, blue and green. Warmer colours represented an increased likelihood of terrorist attack, and colder colours the reverse.

On March 12, 2002, the HSAS was switched on for the first time. But what would be its initial colour? After much debate within the White House, President Bush ultimately declared yellow. An elevated chance of another terrorist attack was to be America’s “new normal”. Indeed, this expression was originally slated to be its descriptor, rather than “elevated”, but the latter ultimately won out.

During its lifetime, the HSAS bounced a few times up to orange (and once, for flights from the UK, to red), but mainly it stayed in the middle of the spectrum, stubbornly refusing to either up the ante, or put the American public at ease. By the time President Obama came to power, the HSAS had been unofficially retired. Subjected to ridicule throughout its lifetime (as well as accusations of political manipulation), the HSAS was something of a lame duck. Janet Napolitano, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chief, ordered a review of the system shortly after taking her position, and the HSAS was found wanting. On April 27, 2011, the HSAS was formerly repealed, and in its place a new matrix, the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), was installed. The NTAS has just two levels, no colours, and, as of today, has never been used.

So what happened to the HSAS? I’m currently at the Kluge Center, Washington DC, (courtesy of the ESRC and the Library of Congress), trying to find out. Where did this 9-year staple of airport lounges, metro stations, and transport hubs end up? What happened to the thousands of signs and posters emblazoned with its distinctive five-colour design? The answer: it’s still a mystery. The posters have all been neatly removed; the signs cleared out of the metro. The archives are, as yet, notably empty; the HSAS, for the time being, has gently flickered out of existence.

Or has it? Last week I was in New York, waiting for the Staten Island Ferry. And there it was; at least an echo. When the HSAS was first introduced, the Coast Guard adapted to the system to meet their own needs. Presciently, they dropped the blue and green colours (which would never be used), and stuck with just yellow, orange and red. They use the system to this day, and call it the MARSEC, for Maritime Security (  It’s the only trace I’ve found so far of a system that once cost $1 billion in added security measures every time it changed.

(Beyond My Ken 2011)

Phil Kirby


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