'Who came up with this idea? MacGyver?'

First came the warnings. Then panic. Then confusion. Then -- finally, inevitably -- the duct-tape jokes. As Americans rode out last week's "code orange" warning that the nation was at "high risk" of a terrorist attack, the country's mood veered from traumatized to tongue-in-cheek, earnest to absurdist. On the front lines, the atmosphere was appropriately grim: New Yorkers stocked up on batteries and bottled water, while some anxious Washingtonians began sealing off family "safe rooms" with duct tape and plastic sheeting.

But from cozier locales such as downtown Burbank and the depths of cyberspace, the responses ran to the derisive. "Who came up with this idea? MacGyver?" cracked Jay Leno, referring to the resourceful ABC action-hero who never went anywhere sans Swiss army knife and sticky roll of adhesive. On their spoof "Department of Homeland Security" Web site, Jim Berg and Tim Nyberg, a.k.a. the Duct Tape Guys, debated whether concerned citizens should designate the kitchen or bathroom as their safe room. "If you have to hold it for three days, you're gonna be in a world of pain!" wrote Tim, advocating the latter option.

In her 1965 essay "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag argued that modern humanity lived in an age of extremes, "under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror."

Last week, a dozen years after the Berlin Wall fell, America seemed to be reliving a version of this sociocognitive dissonance, returning to the skittish days of "Duck and Cover," to the practical uncertainties and existential anxieties of the Cold War era.

And as in the 1950s and '60s, some historians and social scientists say, it was all too evident that neither the public nor the government knew exactly how to walk that fine line between preparation and paranoia.

"The main problem that existed in the early '50s was the problem of panic. They never solved this problem in the early '50s, and they clearly haven't solved this problem in the early part of the 21st century," says Andrew D. Grossman, assistant professor of political science at Albion College in Michigan and author of "Neither Red Nor Dead: Civilian Defense and American Political Development During the Early Cold War" (Routledge, 2001).

Though Grossman doesn't want to be "on record saying, 'Just sit there and die,' " he argues that "you can't scare the bejesus out of the country every week and expect to have a functioning society over time. You'll become a garrison state. Israel is the perfect example."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, many politicians and commentators have invoked Cold War analogies to characterize America's "war on terrorism," in terms of both foreign policy and civil defense -- or, as it's now called, homeland security.

Like the Cold War battle against global communism, this new war is being conceptualized as a protracted engagement, perhaps lasting decades, against a relentless, far-flung adversary intent on destroying the American way of life. "It's never-ending. It's a shadow war," Grossman says.

Not all experts accept the Cold War parallel with America's present danger. Yale scholar John Lewis Gaddis thinks it's "something of a stretch" to compare the two eras, because the threat during the Cold War was "very abstract," whereas a year and a half ago the country experienced the worst terrorist attack in history right on American soil.

But Laura McEnaney, a history professor at Whittier College and author of "Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties" (Princeton University Press, 2000), argues that the Cold War offers a far more apt comparison than the more frequently cited Pearl Harbor, including in the thorny area of civil defense.

"People don't want to use [the Cold War] as an analogy because it doesn't give us a clear story with a beginning, a middle and an end," she says. "That raises more disturbing questions about how long are people going to participate in it, how long is it going to last, is there going to be domestic unity? It raises disturbing questions about the buy-in for the American people."

As the Cold War generation learned, McEnaney says, maintaining a sense of vigilance against an enemy that seems to be everywhere and nowhere can be psychically draining. When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, the U.S. government embarked on an ambitious plan for giving the American public a role to play in what was then shaping up as a do-or-die global showdown.

But because most Americans then had so much confidence in their military, the government had to work to convince the public to begin protecting itself, McEnaney says.

The main public relations effort came through the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which was set up in 1950. "The idea was to enlist the people in supporting atomic weaponry as the basis of U.S. foreign policy," McEnaney says. "Much like any Madison Avenue agency, this government agency believed they had to sell their client, which was the Bomb, to the American people."

While today's homeland security policy promotes the government's power to prevent further terrorist attacks, civil defense in the '50s and early '60s was conceived primarily as a citizens movement. It wasn't only about mobilizing bureaucrats, but about getting the public to participate in a kind of paramilitary preparedness in the event of a nuclear attack: heeding air-raid sirens, practicing orderly evacuations, diving under classroom desks, volunteering for emergency duties, building family fallout shelters in basements and backyards.

"The reward was ideological. It was about celebrating the American system as opposed to the Soviet system," McEnaney says. Building a shelter "was almost like buying an automobile: You had a range of models to choose from. It reinforced gender roles in the sense that father and son would build it and mother and daughter would decorate it."

Then, as now, these ritualized practices reflected a common belief that a proactive stance toward self-defense would hearten or, in modern parlance, "empower" ordinary Americans -- a notion by no means universally endorsed.

"Most of us, when we look back on the duck-and-cover routine that we grew up with, we find it amusing, we find it ludicrous. It in fact served no purpose as far as we can see, and I think it's likely that the current generation is going to look back on some of these things the same way," says Barry Glassner, a USC sociology professor and author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things" (Basic Books, 1999).

In fact, less than 1% of the U.S. population actually built shelters, as far as statistics have been able to show. As the years went by, public attention flickered on and off. It rose during periods of high anxiety, like the Cuban missile crisis, then dissipated. "It was not so much apathy as a kind of refusal to transform their living spaces into garrisons. It required an attitude of constant readiness and constant apprehension that Americans refuse to have," McEnaney says.

Even though Americans continued to support the Cold War with their tax dollars, and opinion polls in the 1950s and '60s showed that a majority were willing to stand firm against the Soviets even to the brink of war, "for the most part Americans did not buy into" civil defense, says Kenneth D. Rose, who teaches history at Cal State Chico and is the author of "One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture" (New York University Press, 2001).

For one thing, Rose says, a typical private shelter cost about $2,500 to build, at a time when the median annual family income was barely twice that. For another, the push for privatizing self-defense ignited divisive questions about whether city dwellers would stand the same chance of survival as suburbanites, and whether blacks in the segregated South would find a "Whites Only" sign on the door to their local fallout shelter.

Furthermore, Rose says, people came to realize that home shelters could only provide temporary refuge from radioactive fallout -- they couldn't do much against the firestorms and shockwaves. And they'd be no good at all if you were at work or shopping.

"Finally, I'd say Americans rejected these things because they understood that even if they survived, what sort of world would they be emerging to?" Rose says. As the Cold War played out, even presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy conceded the enormous difficulties of the civil defense project. Federal officials admitted the inherent contradiction of asking Americans to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. "People at that time discovered what homeland security people today are discovering, which is that it's virtually a hopeless task," Rose says.

That doesn't mean Americans should throw away their spare car keys and dump out their barbecues' propane tanks, however. Taking reasonable precautions, such as you might for any other natural or man-made disaster, while accepting that there's only so much any individual can do to safeguard against a guided missile, dirty bomb or biological attack, may be the best available prescription for mental, as well as physical, longevity.

"This war on terror is very new, it's very young, and Americans haven't had a chance to acclimate themselves to it," Rose says. "Americans were very aware of the prospect of nuclear war, but finally they had to get on with living their lives. And I'm hoping Americans eventually will learn to do the same thing with the war on terrorism."