The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: David Ropeik

David Ropeik was a participant or observer in the following events:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raises the national threat level to orange, or “high.” DHS director Tom Ridge tells Americans, not for the first time (see February 7-13, 2003), to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting as protection against biological and/or radiological attacks. (Unger 2007, pp. 293) The duct tape and plastic sheeting recommendations have become something of a national joke by this point, with Saturday Night Live comedians riffing on the topic and a Tom Ridge impersonator performing while wrapped in plastic sheeting for Ridge and President Bush at a recent Gridiron dinner. Late-night talk show host Jay Leno recently said after having Ridge on his show: “When problems seem overwhelming, simplistic solutions always seem funny. Duct tape and plastic sheeting? When the threat level goes down, it’ll be downgraded to Scotch tape and two Ziploc bags.” On a more serious note, David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis says: “Ridge and the department need to come up with a better way of saying, ‘Be afraid.’ They say, ‘Be alert,’ and then out of the other side of their mouth they say, ‘Go about your normal lives.’ To most of us, those messages don’t mesh. They also need to be more specific. When the threat level goes from yellow to orange, tell us what we can do besides being more alert.” Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator who helped compile the report that eventually led to the creation of the department (see January 31, 2001), says: “The idea of using duct tape to protect yourself would resonate only if people could see the government taking action to protect you. But because the government has done so little against terrorism at home, it sounded as if they were saying, ‘You’re on your own.’” Ridge may have gotten the last laugh on Leno’s show, when Leno asked sardonically: “I’m sitting at home in my underpants watching the game and, boop, we’re in yellow. What do I do now?” Ridge replied, “Change shorts.” (Tierney 3/17/2003)


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