Feature

Editor's Letter: A new era of “duck and cover”

Decades of living under nuclear threat during the Cold War fostered a fatalism that tempered the jitters and allowed us to laugh in the face of existential peril. Will we someday muster a similarly cheeky response to the era of color-coded alarms

I first heard the phrase “security theater” a few years ago from Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who writes about his industry with an inside edge. His meaning—that much of post-9/11 airport security has been devised for our psychological comfort rather than our physical safety—seemed familiar even if the phrase was new. At the start of the Cold War, American schoolchildren practiced a regimen of “duck and cover” to prepare for nuclear attack. Cowering beneath their wooden desks, they were told, would safely shield them from atomic annihilation. These authoritative claims were eventually repurposed as comedy. The 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe used archival footage to depict 1950s-era nuclear preparedness as national security’s homage to Lucille Ball.

Theater audiences laughed—but not from a secure location. Since the ’50s, the nuclear menace had grown with nuclear stockpiles, payloads, and the technologies to deliver them. Meantime, tensions between Washington and Moscow were often hair-trigger, a mood crystallized in President Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech. Yet decades of living under nuclear threat had also fostered a fatalism that tempered the jitters. Consensus may have eluded us (the nuclear-freeze movement was in full swing by 1982), but at least we could laugh in the face of existential peril. Perhaps someday we’ll muster a similarly cheeky response to the era of color-coded alarms, doofus bombers, and shoeless grannies shuffling through airports. For now, however, Americans seem too anxious to find much of anything amusing.

Francis Wilkinson

Recommended

South Korean military says North Korea fired 'unidentified projectile' into sea
File footage of a North Korean missile launch airs on South Korean TV.
all eyes on north korea

South Korean military says North Korea fired 'unidentified projectile' into sea

Germany's next governing coalition could be determined by 3rd- and 4th-place parties
Annalena Baerbock.
what's next for germany

Germany's next governing coalition could be determined by 3rd- and 4th-place parties

Other countries are besting even the most vaccinated U.S. state
Burlington, VT.
vaccinate the world

Other countries are besting even the most vaccinated U.S. state

How the U.S. bungled farm building in Afghanistan
Afghan farmer.
After Afghanistan

How the U.S. bungled farm building in Afghanistan

Most Popular

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness
Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman
Last Night on Late Night

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness

Tigray and the shredding of international law
A Tigray child.
Picture of Ryan CooperRyan Cooper

Tigray and the shredding of international law