Throughout my reading of the Beck, I couldn’t help but think of the US terror alert warning system. Originally conceived in the post-9/11 years with five different levels to categorize the likelihood of a terrorist attack, the system changed a few years back to just two levels – imminent and elevated. Apparently there’s no such thing as a “low” chance of a terrorist attack anymore. To use Beck’s formulation, the United States has become a “catastrophic society,” where the “state of emergency” has simply become “the normal state” (79). Risk is so inherently worked into the fabric of American society that to consider an “elevated” terror level no longer has any real meaning; catastrophe is expected and anticipated at every turn.
It was especially interesting to me to think of the terror alert level system given Beck’s argument that “in risk production, developed capitalism has absorbed, generalized, and normalized the destructive force of war” (56). In the terror alerts, we see this idea become literal. The political implications of this understanding of risk, as Beck is eager to point out, are immense. We can look to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as concrete manifestations of the “destructive force of war” that the terror alert risk system produced. Beck notes that to cope with this fact, people often turn to the “symptoms and symbols of risk” (57). Turning towards the symbols of risk, towards the color coded terror bar, allows an imaginary control over the prevention of risk, a “cosmetics of prevention” (57), rather than an actual prevention of risk. Risk is necessary, even, says Beck. It “must grow” in accordance with its symbols and symptoms. Thus we find ourselves in a state of risk where only two terror levels are possible, rather than five. Who needs five color-coded levels when the “cosmetics of prevention” will allow for only two?