The Anthrax Is Not in the Mail

Americans need to get defiant about terrorism

Oct 17, 2001 at 4:00 am
Nearly half-a-century ago, legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow spoke out against the dangers of McCarthyism on the CBS television show See It Now.

His words were, I think, chillingly prophetic for another time:

"No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices."

The context of terrorism has changed dramatically since 1954, when Murrow warned that Sen. Joseph McCarthy's rants about communists were only successful because of a climate of fear he was able to exploit. But the basic vision, valid then, is valid now: The impact of America's reaction is far greater than the impact of any perpetrator's act.

Now there's some irony in selecting Murrow's quotation; an ominous sort of neo-McCarthyism against Muslims lurks not so far in the background of the nation's current crisis. But even assuming that America continues to curb the instincts of the third of its citizens who, shockingly, tell pollsters they'd accept internment camps for Arab-Americans, it's important to see today's world as Murrow saw his.

If our response to terrorism is to be terrified, we are assisting the enemy. In fact, in a perverse sense, we are unwittingly serving as accomplices.

To understand this, look no further than your local mail carrier -- that is, at least, if he or she shows up at your door wearing plastic gloves and a mask, made available on a voluntary basis by the U.S. Postal Service.

Last week, local postal officials agreed to allow workers to wear the extra protection, a decision certainly made with the best of intentions.

"We're responding to employee concerns by making the gloves and masks available on a voluntary basis, but they're not required to wear them," says JoAnne Hartmann, a St. Louis postal service spokesperson (and no relation, to defend her honor). "It was our way to respond to their safety concerns, and if it gives them a higher comfort level, we'll continue to do it."

But wait a minute. There have been absolutely zero cases of anthrax, anywhere in the St. Louis region, according to Rick Eckhard, spokesman for the St. Louis County Police. Yes, there have been scares -- county police have gone to anthrax-scare scenes 10-12 times in the past week -- but, Eckhard says, "Every single one of those cases proved to be false."

What's more, there have been just two -- count 'em, two -- known cases of anthrax coming through the mail in the entire history of the U.S. Postal Service, which, according to Hartmann, delivers 208 billion pieces of mail annually across the nation. That's two out of trillions, folks, and zero in your hometown.

Isn't this precaution a bit unnecessary, especially because it, understandably, would serve to panic average citizens -- such as the lady interviewed on local TV news who said she feels less than confident making a barehanded reception of mail delivered by a mailman dressed for nuclear winter?

"We don't want to cause panic, and I can understand the customers seeing the masks and gloves might be concerned, but we do need to respond to our employees' safety concerns and we do want to heighten everyone's awareness about suspicious mail," Hartmann says. She also notes that only a "small percentage" of postal workers are wearing extra protection, with more opting for gloves than for masks.

"This is not just about giving employees the opportunity to wear protection," Hartmann adds. "We're also giving them safety and service talks on what to identify as a suspicious package, and we're asking customers to be alert as well."

"This is a very challenging time for everyone, and we must give the highest priority to the safety concerns of our customers, our employees and the mail."

It's hard to criticize all that, especially in light of dominance of the anthrax siege in the media, here and internationally. But although "heightened awareness" is a legitimate notion, it is critical that Americans (and other targets around the world) recognize that collective courage is the best weapon on the domestic front.

The nation would be best served by a defiant refusal to let terrorists see their efforts succeed. Rather than focus on the risks to each of us and our loved ones -- which remain statistically infinitesimal -- Americans need to develop a national resolve not to be intimidated by evil.

To me, that means no masks and gloves, at least not until there is clear evidence of an existing (not merely potential) threat to health. It means not curtailing air travel, attendance at sporting events or any other normal activity. It means restating pride in our freedom and civil liberties, not reducing them in a significant way.

It's obvious that the nation needs to continue to invest increasing resources to defend against the dangers of chemical and biological weapons. But investing emotional energy in the form of overreaction to perceived threats only serves to make terrorism pay.

One of the most tragic aspects of the story is how terrorists turned the best instincts of Americans against them as a weapon, much like airplanes used, perversely, as guided missiles for evil. The more Americans personalize isolated anthrax incidents -- the more they empathize with and grieve for a single distant victim -- the more danger they feel for themselves and loved ones.

That in turn translates to terror, which is the ultimate goal of terrorism.

Think about it: Distribution of a handful of mostly nonlethal packages of powder has rocked the world. The panic of innocents is having a multiplier effect on the mischief of villains that is veritably astronomical.

That's why Murrow's words are worth revisiting now. The impact of terrorism would be dramatically reduced if Americans could demonstrate a collective will to repulse it on the home front while the military does what it must do abroad.

You want to talk patriotism, here's patriotism: Don't be intimidated. Enduring a little fear and discomfort in the name of seeing terrorism fail is a much more meaningful act than waving a flag.

And it certainly beats serving as a terrorist's accomplice.