Living with terror

MY COUNTRY went crazy last week.

Based on what is known so far, the odds that any single person in this country (including me, and I have no immune system and work in media) will die from anthrax are negligible. Negligible. Far lower than my chances of winning the lottery. And I don't play.

But that hasn't been the lead story. The anthrax scare, from a terrorist's standpoint, has been pure genius: using American news media, which has made a science of emotionally jolting viewers and readers every day, as a weapon against us. They've watched CNN and O.J. and Elian; they've figured it out. The same news industry that gives us live "Windstorm 2001!" reports is now a terrorist weapon.

And then there's the politicians. The sheer panic evinced by what passes for this country's political leadership when anthrax came to D.C. had an air of very black comedy to it. Here we are, with the most powerful, truculent legislative body in the world, leaders of a country that has covertly or overtly intervened in the affairs of some 30 countries since the end of the Vietnam War, a country whose current military strategy is, at best, leading us down the same path as a rapidly unraveling Israel, and they're panicking over granules in a few envelopes. Remember anthrax is a disease that is hard to catch and that, when treated upon exposure with antibiotics, is easily cured. House Speaker Dennis Hassert immediately closed the House for a week, a decision that sounded an awful lot like " . . . and I'm getting the hell out of town!" It's all reminiscent of a playground truth: Bullies are often cowards.

But if the plutocracy that runs and greases Washington would like some pointers on how to handle living with fear, they needn't go far. They could take a quick subway ride across the Anacostia River and enter a Third World city where random violence has been a fact of life for decades. It's a fair bet that most members of Congress don't reside in neighborhoods where parents worry about a stray drive-by bullet coming through the kitchen window while they're changing diapers. I'm sure Anacostia's residents could give some coping tips.

They could go up to Mount Pleasant, or any of the other bustling, immigrant-heavy parts of D.C., and ask, not just what it was like in El Salvador or Colombia or whatever other country whose U.S.-sponsored violence they fled, but what it's been like since Sept. 11. Since then, the biggest follow-up terrorism has been ongoing: random assaults, even murders, by self-proclaimed (and often drunk) "patriots" on anyone who they think might look like a terrorist (the bin Laden type, not the McVeigh type). Every brown-skinned person in America has been racial profiling like mad since Sept. 11, trying to judge whether that white stranger with a crewcut also has a weapon and a grudge.

Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian and author Sherman Alexie tells of standing on a downtown sidewalk a couple of weeks ago, when some yahoo yelled out of a passing pickup, "Go back to your own country!" The truck was a block away before Sherman could stop laughing long enough to reply ("You first!"). Beyond the obvious irony, the anthrax scare provides another one: Germ warfare was popularized by those smallpox-infected blankets from our terrorist forefathers.

And, hey, if our politicians and lobbyists feel adrift with their feelings of being vulnerable to not just random violence but premeditated murder, they could ask their mothers or daughters or sisters or wives. Across America, every day, our newspapers fill with murder stories, and a startling percentage of the time the victims are women and the suspected perpetrators men—usually husbands, boyfriends, ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, or other acquaintances. But then, there's the occasional random homicidal misogynist, too.

These are invariably painted as isolated incidents, but they're not; they're terrorist acts, the most violent tip of countless other acts intended to terrorize (and hence control) the women in the perpetrators' lives. Men usually don't think twice about walking alone at night. Women do, and modify their behavior or take steps to defend themselves accordingly. We're hearing a bit these days about the terror that women in Afghanistan live with (though the Taliban's treatment of statues and foreign-aid workers still gets more attention); but for some women, the terror is much closer to home. For some, it is home.

This country actually has quite a bit of expertise on how to live with, and prevent, random violence and terror. The problem is that our political and economic elites generally haven't been the folks who most need to think about these issues in their lives. They've been more likely to be the perpetrators than the victims. Now that they're scared, too, maybe they can ask around and learn something. It can't hurt.

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