A NORAD Christmas

Christmas is a time of good cheer. It’s a time of family gathering around the fireplace, children laughing and opening presents, sugar cookies, egg nog, sugar plums–you know the drill. It’s also the time to check the NORAD Santa web site.

That’s what I found myself doing the other day. There’s something strangely intriguing about the fact that all these defense department types buried under Cheyenne Mountain have taken the time to put together a whimsical web site dedicated to St. Nick. They have “Santacam” movies of the sleigh soaring past landmarks like the Taj Mahal, and satellite tracks of him moving across the continents at high speed. My favorite are the videos of stiff military brass saying things like “This is Major General Thomas Spudburn of NORAD. We are happy to report that Santa Claus is on schedule to reach our British ally in one hour. We’re looking forward to seeing him enter US airspace at around midnight Eastern Standard Time, and we’d like to remind him to stay on his planned flight path and not try anything funny. Merry Christmas.”

I need to mention that I understand the church/state issue here: Santa Claus, though peripheral in concept and diluted by time, still has Christian origin. I suppose the ACLU will move to shut down the NORAD Santa site in a few years, and I’ll end up supporting them in principle. It really isn’t ethical to have the US (or Canada, for that matter, as NORAD is a joint venture) backing one religion over another.

Still, I enjoy the site, and was interested enough to want to share it with my step-son. At age 12, he knows the truth about Santa, but we like to maintain the tradition of hanging stockings and “finding” presents on Christmas morning. In that spirit, I sought him out at his computer on Christmas eve to show him the NORAD Santa web site.

Which brings me to my problem…

Of late, my primary computer of choice has been a Macintosh, and that is what I had been using to view the Santa site. My step-son has a computer which runs Windows. When I used his computer to go to the same site, we got a pop-up warning that software on the web site was attempting to access the Windows registry and change some of its settings. This disturbed me.

I’m not going to try to examine the reasons for receiving the warning on one computer and not the other. I suspect it has to do either with the fact that Windows is far more common than Mac and therefore the more obvious choice to hack, or that all the security stuff we installed on my step-son’s computer finally did something other than slow it down. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fact that our government (or maybe Canada’s, but let’s face it, which is the more obvious suspect?) put something on a children’s web site to alter computers.

In the past, I would have assumed that the attempted modification was most likely benign, probably having something to do with making the site work its magic more smoothly. However, given the way the USA has been behaving since 9/11: at least one American citizen being held without charge; domestic wiretaps that are (let’s be kind) borderline illegal; and rumors of torture franchises being set up around the world, I no longer have the trust in my government that was instilled in me as a child. When the warning message popped up on that computer, my gut reaction was fear. Whoa. Shut it off. Get out of there. The fun little Santa Claus web site had hidden teeth, and they were biting at my step-son.

It’s perfectly possible–maybe even likely–that there is nothing sinister going on. The pop-up warning might have been telling us something we didn’t need to know, and I ended up being overly cautious. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for a moment, I trusted my own government less than just about anyone I could think of.

What kind of a country am I living in, anyway?

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