Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2001 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762
John H. Fund
"We've got to tone it down," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Minnesota. The Washington Post interviewed a series of mental-health authorities and concluded that "public hysteria is more dangerous than the real problem, and America is on the verge of it."
It's true that the scare is being put into its proper perspective, but you have to listen between the news bulletins or read beyond the headlines. The forms of anthrax that are contracted through the skin aren't fatal even without early treatment with antibiotics, and the inhaled forms that are deadly are very difficult to deploy. There were only 18 known cases of inhaled anthrax in the U.S. in the 20th century, the last in 1976.
Government officials also suffer from anthrax anxiety, which has led them to give the public a series of mixed messages. On the one hand, government officials appeal for calm and urge Americans to go about their business. On the other hand, the House evacuated its buildings for the first time in history last week and Gov. George Pataki of New York began taking Cipro even though he hadn't been tested for anthrax.
Confusing the public only breeds hysteria. Last Friday, a Fox News poll found that when asked "How worried are you that terrorist attacks might take place where you live or work?" 12% of the sample said "very worried" and another 31% said "somewhat worried." One explanation for these high numbers may be in the answer to another question Fox News asked: "Do you think the news media coverage of the recent anthrax cases has been responsible or overhyped?" Only 35% said responsible, while 56% said overhyped.
One media coverage of anthrax has been excessive is that the media themselves have become part of the story. The terrorists knew exactly whom to target: Tom Brokaw of NBC, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS are better known than most government officials. All apparently were mailed letters containing anthrax, and employees or visitors to their offices were infected.
"Anchors are celebrities, larger than life," says Robert Lichter of George Washington University. "They can steady nerves as they did after September 11 or they can stimulate panic just by talking about anthrax attacks near them, no matter what they say." That also goes for some show-business celebrities too. The New York Post reported that actress Heather Graham abruptly canceled her date on David Letterman's show last week because it would have entailed a flight to New York. Drew Barrymore bowed out of the New York premiere of her latest film. New York resident Liza Minnelli canceled a Los Angeles charity event, telling the Post's Cindy Adams that her Washington "contacts" advised her not to fly. "I should risk my life for one f---ing song?" she snipped.
Contrast this skittish behavior with that of Lisa Beamer, whose late husband Todd was one of the heroes of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Last week, Mrs. Beamer took the same morning United flight from Newark to San Francisco that Todd had taken on Sept. 11. Her mission was to reassure the flying public and also to meet some of the business associates her husband had been flying to see. Ms. Beamer is expecting her third child in January, but nonetheless was composed and calm during the flight.
Terrorists win if people succumb to panic and if fear and disinformation are allowed to spread through the nation. It is incumbent upon all of us to ratchet down the current level of fear. That doesn't mean we should be less alert or unconcerned about potential threats. But it does mean that we recall that our country wasn't built by people demanding a risk-free society. It has always overcome great moments of crisis, perhaps most memorably when FDR began his first administration by assuring the American people "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Right now we could live with a lot more of FDR's self-assurance, and a lot less of Liza Minnelli's
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