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Mail Bonding

By Chris Potter | Posted 10/17/2001

As anthrax scares go, ours wasn't bad. There was a letter, of course, an invitation to visit Afghanistan courtesy of Osama bin Laden, sent to conservative radio host Jim Quinn -- whose station, WRRK, is owned by City Paper's parent company -- and his on-air assistant, Rose Tennent. The letter contained none of the "powdery white substance" we've heard so much about, just a nauseatingly powerful perfume smell. Tennent and Quinn tossed the letter in the trash and left.

Hours later, after news broke that an employee of NBC had been exposed to anthrax, Tennent thought of the letter again. And shortly after 1 p.m. (just a few moments after a friend sent me an e-mail half-jokingly advising me not to open any blue envelopes), we were being ushered toward the back of the office, as far from the mailroom as possible. Guys with disposable clothing confiscated our garbage can for testing, while people walking out of the elevators were told they were stuck here, hapless as the bank customer who comes to make a deposit during a stick-up.

We did what you would have done -- and may someday end up doing: We sat around, telling jokes we laughed a little too hard at. We agreed that if the terrorists sought to undermine the nation's vital newsgathering apparatus, both City Paper and the parent company that publishes the National Enquirer -- where anthrax had first struck -- were the natural places to strike. We sat around, complaining a little excessively about all the work we could be doing. We expressed frustration about how "ridiculous" this all was, sometimes with a kind of anger that suggested we weren't sure if it was that ridiculous.

It was probably the same when Hillman Library was evacuated by an anonymous phone threat the next day: I can almost picture a student in Pitt sweatshirt, bending over to light a cigarette, joking that if he was going to get anthrax, he'd prefer it happen now, before finals.

In the days since Sept. 11, there's been a lot of ink spilled about how irony and cynicism were dead, how sarcasm just can't be funny anymore. But if, to borrow from John Knowles, sarcasm is the protest of the powerless, it may yet become more widespread than ever. After all, despite his survivalist machismo, Jim Quinn was as unprepared to deal with the contents of a suspicious envelope as we pencil-necked lefties were. All the firearms in the world -- or even in Quinn's gun closet -- aren't going to protect you from an anthrax spore.

Without any powder to analyze, it didn't take long for the hazmat folks to pronounce us clean. The garbage can was returned, and it's easy to miss the fact that our office assistant now keeps a box of latex gloves on her desk for use in sorting the mail. It looks a lot like a Kleenex dispenser.

As real as the threat of anthrax is, hoaxes like ours far outnumber real incidents. As this issue goes to press, anthrax has claimed only one fatality in the United States; others exposed to the disease are expected to make full recoveries. Five times that many people died in a single accident involving a Beaver County apple truck last week. If caught in time, the condition is treatable. The plain and simple truth of anthrax is this: We will learn to live with this threat.

But that's scary too somehow, even if it's nowhere near as frightening as the idea of dying from it.

In some sense, this panic is hard to understand. Most of us grew up facing the far larger nightmare of a nuclear holocaust. In the 1980s, polls indicated that most Americans felt a nuclear war was likely to happen within their lifetimes. Yet for a nation facing the prospect of its own eradication in the space of a quarter-hour, we were surprisingly unconcerned. Today, by contrast, the stakes are far lower, and yet the panic is so much greater.

But of course the Cold War's logic of Mutual Assured Destruction did have one consolation: Death was so certain in a nuclear war that there was no point in changing your way of life to prepare for it. However dire it may be, an anthrax catastrophe is not, like nuclear war, unimaginable; it is all too easy to imagine -- as ever-present, and thus as banal, as a box of Kleenex facial tissues. The words "powdery white substance" have taken on the kind of resonance only mass-media repetition can bring, but like all such watchwords, it doesn't say very much: Is the powder flaky like talc, or fine like sugar? And so once-innocent substances become filled with menace. While the odds against being singled out for death in a nation of 280 million are infinitesimal, the threat of death seems to hang everywhere -- in picking up the newspaper, opening the mail.

Of course, for many people in the world, that's what the thought of death has always been like. People say that we can now better understand how Israel feels. I suppose that's true. But I think I can also understand how the Palestinians feel, and the hapless Afghani citizens looking fearfully toward the skies, and the impoverished in our own cities ... everyone for whom the most mundane activities are tinged, always and everywhere, with a trace of fear. We haven't paid much attention to these things in the past, because they happened in another part of town, another part of the world. One reason media outlets are covering this story so much is that they feel directly threatened by it.

The recent terrorists attacks are often said to be the end of American innocence. I suspect that what we've lost was not innocence but naivete, with which innocence is often confused. What we have "lost" is the too-long-held belief that we are universally beloved, that we can trumpet ourselves as the world's last superpower without being blamed for much of what happens outside our boundaries. A military response to the attacks is inevitable, but it will inevitably fail to eradicate terrorism unless we start realizing our common cause with suffering people everywhere.

That insight is the only good thing I can see coming out of these anthrax scares, but it won't be easy. The more frightened we get, the more we will seek solace in the comfortable ignorance and complacent routine which left us so surprised last month.

Shortly before the guys in disposable clothes showed up, a co-worker and I were ruminating over lunch about what we'd have left behind if we were to die: A stack of yellowing newspaper clips seems a pretty paltry legacy given the scope of what has taken place. But when we were shepherded away from our desks less than 20 minutes later, all we could think to do was proofread the stories you see in this week's "Best of Pittsburgh" package. While the hazmat crews were scouring the trashcan for bioweapons just down the hall, I scoured a story about Prantl's Bakery for typos and inconsistent margins.

A typo might have gotten past me anyway. My mind, I think, was elsewhere.

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