Chicken Little effect

The following is a list of things that probably look like anthrax: Powdered milk. Powdered sugar. Fine-grained sugar. Cocaine. Coffee whitener. Snow. White sand. White dust. Lint. Dandruff.

If your mail doesn’t kill you, rest assured that somewhere there is a suspicious-looking substance with your name on it, just waiting to take you out. Your days are numbered. This is the end, my friend. Prepare to log off.

I’m not trying to be unpatriotic, but there’ve got to be bigger things going on related to this war than anthrax. So far only a bare handful of folks have died from this plague wannabe. The numbers haven’t even reached double digits yet. But for the past couple weeks the headlines have been clogged with stories screaming like Chicken Little that we should abandon all hope. The sky really is falling this time.

Not long after the attack there was considerable speculation about whether the terrorists had the means to launch some form of chemical warfare against the United States. Everybody wanted to know how much the terrorists knew about biological weapons. More than that, everybody wanted to know whether the U.S. government, the world’s only remaining superpower, had the means to protect us just in case the evildoers got it in their heads that they wanted to do us in.

Along comes anthrax.

Suddenly no one anywhere is safe. The mail isn’t safe. The air isn’t safe. Anything that looks like what we’ve been told anthrax is supposed to look like might not be safe — so run for your life if you see it. You know, just in case.

Right now you are more likely to die in a car crash than from anthrax. You are more likely to die from a slip in the bathtub than you are from anthrax. You are more likely to die from old age than from anthrax. You are more likely to die from fast living at a young age than from anthrax. You are more likely to die from just about anything that can be found on the list of surefire ways to die than from anthrax.

This is the thing about hysteria and panic. The truth doesn’t much matter once we’ve all become convinced that the bogeyman is the real deal. Instead we keep on hearing minute-by-minute updates on the latest anthrax developments. Why? Because this is supposed to convince us that the war is real and that we’re forever at risk and life will never be the same. The fact that a month ago two hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center just before a third slammed the Pentagon and a fourth went down in a field was pretty convincing too. But that was more than a month ago. This is the age of the short attention span. Can’t just keep the viewers stuck on rewind as those planes keep exploding again and again and again. After a while the audience starts to yawn. Time to go to the restroom. Get some more popcorn. Have a Coke and a smile.

Along comes anthrax.

Suddenly the war has our attention again. The threat is real again. We’re all in danger again. The adrenaline is pumping again. We now have another reason to hate the enemy — until the next headline.

Not to be cold-blooded about it, but this anthrax better start wreaking one hell of a lot more havoc and erasing a lot more American lives. Soon. Otherwise, we might all be stuck scratching our heads, twiddling our thumbs, and waiting for the next terror-filled headline. Hey, it’s a war. How else are we supposed to take it seriously if we don’t feel constantly threatened? How are we supposed to really understand the gravity of the situation when most of us still have the same lives we had before the attack? How are we supposed to keep ourselves revved up and angry when there’s too much dead time between calamitous events?

While the constant threat of anthrax is being draped over our psyches like the grim reaper’s robe, people in Afghanistan are dodging bombs and food drops at the same time. From the same folks. Imagine that for a minute. Imagine if someone were to walk up to you with a gun, shoot you in the stomach, then smile sympathetically and hand you a sandwich while patting you on the head.

“Nothing personal, buddy. Just didn’t like the shirt you were wearing. See, there was this guy? And, like, he was wearing a shirt just like that one when he killed a friend of mine. Hey, no hard feelings, right, pal?

“By the way, you wouldn’t mind telling me who else got a shirt like that one, would you? Thanks so much. ‘Preciate it.”

Meanwhile, back on these shores, gas prices continue to fall like a rock pulled by more than your average gravity. Go figure. The nation is attacked by terrorists. Next day? Gas prices spike as high as $5 per gallon at some stations. I was half expecting to see a member of the Mafia behind the counter because I was sure those were the only thugs around with that kind of muscle and nerve.

Guess I was wrong. My apologies to the mob.

Now here we are in the second month of the so-called war against terrorism and I’m seeing gas prices so low that I’m actually considering buying a gallon or so of regular instead of the el-cheapo gas I’ve been buying ever since the prices first started to go haywire more than two years ago. One more reason to wonder whether we’re really being told what’s going on.

Make no mistake about it, the war is real. The terrorists are real. Osama bin Laden is real. Anthrax is real. All of these things are just a tad more worrisome than how much we were forced to pay for gas for a brief period after the attack here in Michigan; that several folks have already died from anthrax makes it more serious. But the constant implication that what happened to those unfortunate few Americans is merely a preview of the numbers yet to succumb is premature to say the least.

Sometimes it helps to keep things in perspective.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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