Remember the color-coded terror threat alert system implemented by the Department of Homeland Security after September 11? Each color represented a different threat level; the greater the threat, the more vigilant citizens should be.

That scale was replaced in 2011 with the National Terrorism Advisory System, which offered more specific designations and steps communities, agencies, and private citizens can take to protect themselves or prevent an attack. According to Homeland Security, this newer system “recognizes that Americans all share responsibility for the nation's security, and should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States and what they should do.” In other words, it’s more realistic and more helpful to simply accept significant risk as reality.

The old alert system never went to green (low risk) or blue (guarded). It stayed at yellow (elevated risk) most of the time and occasionally moved to orange (high risk). Yellow became the color of everyday life. Yellow became easy to ignore as we learned to live in a new normal.

While such adaptation can turn into complacency, it’s also a healthy process—we are not designed to be chronically on guard. In fact, a long-term state of fear is detrimental to every system in our bodies, most notably to our brains. Fear is a good thing in its place; out of bounds it can literally rewire the brain and cause us to think and behave very differently. So learning to live with a new normal is good for us, but it doesn’t mean we’re safe.

In 2016, we continue to increase security measures and vigilance, usually in response to nothing more specific than a general sense of vulnerability. We find ...

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