Mumbai: How can design respond to terrorism?

I feel fortunate that I was able to visit Mumbai back in 2005, before all of this devastating chaos. However, my travels in India marked my first palpable encounter with a daily, immanent threat of terrorism. A couple days before I landed in New Delhi, two cinemas screening a controversial Hindi film were bombed. Though these attacks were not nearly as aggressive as the recent events in Mumbai, leaving far fewer dead or injured, Delhi responded by visibly tightening security. The cinemas swiftly implemented metal detectors and hand-searches (frisking) of each individual. (Similar screening processes could be found at many other venues for large public assembly.) Men and women would queue up in separate lines, file through the detectors, and then proceed to the pat-down from a police officer of one’s same sex (this is a regular feature of India’s domestic airports). My friend Arun had his camera with us when we got in line to buy tickets for Bunty aur Babli. We had to buy tickets for a later showing so we’d have time to figure out what to do with his camera (because they wouldn’t let him take it—or any other ‘foreign objects’ into the theatre with us).

But the point of all of this is that, in spite of the bombings, people were still going to the movies. People were still out and about in the streets of Delhi. Life kept moving in its vibrant, tumultuous, very Indian way.

“The killers who struck this week are brutal and violent, but terror will not have the final word,” President Bush said in his statement this morning. “People of India are resilient. People of India are strong. They have built a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy that can withstand this trial. Their financial capital of Mumbai will continue to be the center of commerce and prosperity.” While this is one of the few statements Bush has ever made with which I actually agree, I also think his comment on Indian resilience provides an excellent opportunity to reexamine the way he has responded to terrorism in our own country, and how design dictates our attitudes towards terrorism.

Six months after 9/11, Bush issued a presidential directive to create the Homeland Security Advisory System, which was presented to the public in March 2002 by Tom Ridge. You know this system; you’ve seen signs for it in the airport, heard about it on the evening news. The language in the presidential directive describes the scale:

Low = Green;
Guarded = Blue;
Elevated = Yellow;
High = Orange;
Severe = Red.

Since its inception, this system has been highly criticized—and rightfully so. Because there are no public criteria for the threat levels, they seem fairly arbitrary. The lowest levels (green and blue) have never been invoked; according to the Bush administration, America has been teetering somewhere between “Yellow” and “Red” for the past six and a half years.

In terms of the way the design of this system influences American thinking, the color-coding system has two major outcomes:

1. “The color-coding system is completely pointless.” Those who realize the arbitrary nature of the system consider it to be ridiculous (not to mention that the ‘strategic’ development invested in its creation was a total waste of tax dollars). The invention of the system compromises our opinion of Bush’s judgment, further decreasing peoples’ faith in the leadership of this country.

2. “The color-coding system makes me feel afraid and worry about terrorists.” Never mind that it comes without instructions (because how can you instruct someone to avoid terror?); those who see the flash of orange on the evening news—and take it seriously—contribute to the culture of fear that has developed in America over the past seven years. In terms of rhetorical modes of appeal (which are as applicable to images and design as they are to language), the color-coding system employs pathos to elicit an emotional response (fear) from the audience (Americans). To return to Bush’s statement about Mumbai, the advisory system he established in his own country actually lets terror have the final word.

Never mind that India does not have a parallel infrastructure (nor a comparable percentage of televisions in the homes of its massive population)—they definitely do not have a similar color-coding ‘advisory’ system. Permeability of mass media aside, I doubt they ever will employ such a problematic communication device. India has been fraught with terror attacks; current events in Mumbai are only part of an unfortunate history of violent acts throughout the country. But India benefits in the long run by coping with hope instead of perpetuating fear. The Indian people deal with these horrific situations in a hands-on way (i.e. visibly ramping up security), then gradually do their best to return to normal, daily life. In this way, the world’s oldest democracy could learn from the world’s largest democracy.

As a designer, I believe America would be better off without the Homeland Security Advisory System. If you agree, stop stocking up on duct tape and please let President-Elect Obama know that we’d like to retire this arbitrary system which only serves to reinforce fear, and replace it with a renewed American tradition of hope.

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