PERHAPS SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-N.C.) was right when he argued last week that with their emerging battle plan for the next campaign, the Democratic contenders for president were merely amplifying what every American knows: "Washington is not doing enough to make America safe." The official alerts, after all, have not lost their cryptic character. Take the one last month: An FBI memo announced that al Qaeda wants to target "aviation, petroleum, and nuclear sectors as well as significant national landmarks." It added that we should be especially vigilant over the holidays. Frightening -- and yet so obvious as to be basically useless. The memo did not make most front pages, and there were no follow-up stories about people canceling Christmas travel plans -- signs that the alerts seem to be losing their edge.

And yet, turning the nation's vulnerability into talking points for the next campaign seems exactly the wrong way to go. Already the issue feels too politicized, as if the most practical use of the warnings is to provide political cover for the administration should disaster strike. In a country facing the threat of catastrophic terrorism, defense should be a common endeavor.

What's missing here are some gritty instructions. We should know what to do when we hear of red and yellow alerts, just as we've learned what to do in case of an earthquake or a snowstorm. An anthrax attack would require a different response than a smallpox attack. Are potassium iodide pills a good idea only if you live next to a nuclear power plant? Americans want to know, and there's a way to tell them that would encourage a practical rather than hysterical -- or indifferent -- response. The campaign trail is not the place where that balanced tone is likely to be found.