Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we have entered a new Age of Suspicion. We nervously eye every jet that flies overhead, expecting it to pitch and roll, to dive, to do something. We peer suspiciously at the windshield of every tanker on the highway, trying to make out who is at the wheel and what he or she might be capable of. Out west, a couple of good ol' boys started shooting at men with turbans and long beards. Elsewhere mosques have been petrol-bombed and Arabs have been spat at.
So now we're all trying to anticipate what will happen next and how we can best avoid being anywhere near it. Some think the next attack will be chemical or biological; others fear truck bombs. Some expect a costly epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, initiated on purpose; and others refuse to fly, assuming terrorists will again aim hijacked aircraft at populated areas or nationally important buildings.
According to an Oct. 2 Reuters news report, when hundreds of students in the Philippine capital of Manila reported sick, its residents feared the city was under attack with biological weapons; schoolrooms were fumigated, and children were removed from their schools by parents. Philippine politicians huddled together in a cabinet meeting fielding "mobile phone text messages about a mysterious 'airborne virus' hovering over the capital."
OK, that's Manila. They make the envelopes, right? We wouldn't fall for that here.
But according to the Oct. 8 issue of Time magazine, we probably would. In a Time/CNN questionnaire taken two weeks after the attack, more than 50 percent of Americans said they believe a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons is likely to occur in the United States in the next 12 months. A staggering 76 percent believe a bomb carried on a car or truck will be used within the year; and almost a quarter of those asked believe an attack using nuclear weapons is likely to occur.
First there is fear, and then suspicion. Listen: Roughly one-third of those asked said they would favor the federal government holding Arabs who are U.S. citizens in camps until it can be determined whether or not they have links to terrorist organizations. Do you remember Hitler?
One-third has considered buying extra bottled water and extra food supplies. Y2K?
One-third has become careful to monitor people in their community who might be acting suspiciously. Can we all say, "Senator McCarthy?"
Even more ridiculous, 17 percent of respondents have considered buying a gas mask following the attacks and 15 percent have planned an escape route from home or work.
Maybe we've been attacked already with chemicals that make us all stupid. Escape routes? Gas masks? Seriously? Meanwhile, soldiers from the Michigan National Guard have been posted outside BioPort Corp., the only facility in the U.S. that manufactures the anthrax vaccine.
"It makes me more nervous, seeing all the security around," said a woman who works across the street from BioPort. "But I think it's necessary."
It probably isn't, though. Neither is buying a surplus Israeli gas mask and a Level B haz-mat suit; or planning an escape route or putting all Arabian U.S. citizens in camps until they're proven trustworthy. What have we become?
We learned Oct. 4 from the Associated Press that Bob Stevens, a 63-year-old Florida resident, had become the first person to contract inhaled anthrax in more than 25 years. Is it an attack by Osama bin Laden? On Floridian pensioners?
On the same day, a Reuters news report described a mysterious Ebola-like virus killing Afghan refugees at the Pakistan-Afghan border. The virus, resembling Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, caused 11 deaths between May and August. The reports don't say as much, but we're supposed to conclude that the bio-war has begun. We're fighting the Taliban's propaganda war ourselves! We don't need them.
In the same Oct. 8 issue of Time, an article titled "Shopping for Protection" does little to assuage readers' fears. Reading more like a tabloid than a respectable magazine, we learn that if you're in the market for a gas mask, the Advantage 1000 CBA-RCA is a good, dependable model.
"The Advantage runs about $160," the article says. "Israeli masks can go for as little at $19.99" -- but, readers are reminded -- "surplus Israeli army models can't be trusted to be in good condition."
If only I had a nickel for every time I'd said those words.
There's also information on antibiotics to counteract bacterial agents (anthrax and plague), antidotes (poison and nerve gas) and water filters to remove toxins (bacteria or viruses). There's the hazardous material or haz-mat suit, protecting the entire body against biological or chemical agents.
"Level B suits keep out low concentrations of germs and gases," Time says. "Level A suits work under much more toxic conditions."
Either way, you look like a dork. Cost: $45 to $200.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. According to the Time/CNN poll, 79 percent of Americans were prompted by the attacks to tell someone they loved them. Finally, something positive. That is our escape route.
Please don't let terrorists, whatever their cause, teach us hatred, fear and suspicion. Be defiant. Love fiercely. Live your life without a gas mask. Hug your children. You know, it's hard to hug them when you've kitted them all out in Level B haz-mat suits.