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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2001 / 30 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Kelly

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Consumer Reports

Chicken Little media -- YESTERDAY, the day after an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle opened an envelope containing anthrax spores, the first-edition front page of the New York Post featured a trick photo of the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial wearing a gas mask, above the headline: "Anthrax Hits the Capital." The paper's gossip page reported, under the headline "Scared Stars Cave to Terror," that Drew Barrymore had canceled a Manhattan movie premiere and fled the city, that Christy Turlington had postponed her wedding and that Rosie O'Donnell had canceled her shows this week.

The New York Times led its Oct. 16 paper with a story subheaded "Baby Falls Ill as Scare Widens Across the U.S." Note: baby, not babies. On "Today," Tom Brokaw, whose assistant has tested positive for the generally nonfatal and easily treatable form of anthrax infection caused by skin contact, reported Monday that he believed that he, Tom Brokaw, "actually saw" the letter that contained the anthrax spores and that, indeed, he may have even "picked it up" (or may not have) -- and that, while he had exhibited no symptoms of anthrax, he was taking the antibiotic Cipro anyway.

Ten years ago, during the anteceding days to what can now be seen as the first phase of a long war, President George H. W. Bush suffered a small crisis of confidence. Bush's great Gulf War ally, Margaret Thatcher, reportedly took the president aside. George, she famously said, this is no time to go wobbly.

This is still no time to go wobbly. Also, it is no time for the American media to revert to the hysterical, silly, fear-mongering, self-centered, juvenile and ninnyish form that has made them so widely mistrusted and so cordially detested.

A New York Times article on Tuesday quoted a bioterrorism expert named Amy Smithson: "Welcome to our generation's Blitz. We are going to have to get hardened up here." Yes, and a good way to start getting hardened up would be not to compare a scare that, as of Ms. Smithson's utterance, had claimed precisely one life to the Nazi air war against Britain. Between September 1940 and May 1941, the bombing of Britain took more than 40,000 lives.

A campaign to spread fear by sending anthrax spores to media and political targets is not the same as two years of air raids and 40,000 dead. It is not the same as 5,000 dead either. To confuse mass fear with mass murder is an embarrassment -- and, worse, an insult to the dead and the destroyed of Sept. 11. On that day, it is reported, something on the order of 10,000 children lost a parent. All over the country, people face each day numb with horror and despair because of Sept. 11. It is not fair to them that the rest of us, who did not lose a husband or a wife or a child that day, should succumb to the vapors over a few threats to a few people in the media and politics. It is not decent.

Neither is it wise. What lies ahead really may be a test on the order of the Blitz. There are a great many targets in America, a great many office buildings, public spaces, landmarks. It is not possible to guard them all from attack, and, as we learned in Oklahoma City, such targets are vulnerable to devastating assaults of a nature far easier to arrange than the relatively sophisticated airliner attacks of September. We need to get hardened up not to deal with fantasies of fear over the mail but with the real possibility of more deaths, in large numbers.

The war so far seems to be going very well and it may end reasonably soon and in a reasonably clean victory, at least in terms of initial goals. But who knows? The conflict could spread, and Middle Eastern governments more or less friendly to the United States could be toppled and replaced with revolutionary regimes bent on jihad. It is possible (not likely, I think) that this will develop into a long, terrible fight, with a great cost in American lives.

It is certain, given the military realities, that we will win even this, if we keep our resolve, but our resolve will be tried. It is really not a good idea to begin chipping away at it now, each with our own little attack of the swoons.

Go to work. Don't ask your doctor for Cipro. Don't buy a gas mask. Take the kids to the park; take your wife to a restaurant. Open your mail. Boycott Drew Barrymore's movie (you know it's no good anyway).

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