Fear and Its Discontents

Fear and Its Discontents

I n March for my online column “Ask Dr.


I n March for my online column “Ask Dr. Marc,” I contacted readers to find out what the jolt of government-issued terror alerts was doing to people (www.thenation.com). I found that the fear level is fairly high–even among the antiwar set–but so is skepticism about whether these warnings are being used by the Administration to fuel support for war and civil liberties restrictions.

From New York City: If it comes to the point that the smallpox vaccine is recommended for and available to the general public, would it be wise to get vaccinated?

In a word, no–not in a pre-exposure scenario. The only smallpox vaccine approved in the United States uses a live virus that can cause brain swelling or even death for several people per million vaccinated. Those risks are well established, while the risk of an attack is merely theoretical. And if an immune-compromised person became sick from exposure to a vaccine recipient, who would be the terrorist then?

From Springdale, Pa.: If a chemical or biological weapon were used in the United States, how long would the agent persist in the environment? Would sealing windows and doors with plastic sheeting and duct tape keep the germs or chemicals out long enough for the agent to be cleaned or diluted to nonlethal levels?

Certainly, beware of a mailman in a full bodysuit and gas mask. Otherwise, I recommend going about your daily business. Chemical agents such as sarin would dissipate in minutes on their own long before they reached your duct-taped door. Even if by some unlucky miracle you were right nearby, your best bet would be to leave the area. As far as germs go, anthrax isn’t contagious, smallpox spreads very slowly, and bubonic-plague infection requires fleas. Tom Ridge notwithstanding, I can’t imagine a scenario where it would be essential to duct tape yourself inside a room.

From Ann Arbor, Mich.: I have heard that potassium iodide is good to have around and to take it in the event of exposure to nuclear radiation. OK, so maybe this is the equivalent of duct tape, but if it will help prevent thyroid cancer, should I try to find some? I grew up with this fear, sure wish it wasn’t upon us again.

The risk of nuclear radiation reaching you in Ann Arbor from a small-scale attack or dirty bomb is very low. If we’re worried about a large-scale attack, though, we should look in the mirror–we’re the ones with the big weapons. Sure, if it makes you feel better to keep these items of limited value around in the event of an almost inconceivable attack, then do so. But potassium iodide would protect only your neck; better to treat your whole-body panic by going about your normal activities and concentrating on other things. Arm yourself with probabilities. Reflect on how unlikely it is that biological, chemical or nuclear weapons could be delivered here on a mass scale. Most terrorists are poor; their strongest weapon is fear, not nuclear missiles.

From San Bruno, Calif.: Assume that you could seal a 10’x20’x8′ room so that it’s airtight, which as a general contractor I think I can do. How long would it be before lack of oxygen or buildup of CO2 becomes a problem for two people?

CO2 is such a noxious gas, maybe terrorists should consider it. In the airtight room you describe, CO2 would overcome you in a matter of hours. Meaning fear would prevail long before a terrorist could reach you with sarin.

From Durango, Colo.: If we were to create a “safe room” in our house with duct tape, etc., how would we determine when to come out, and how would we deal with the contaminated environment from that point on?

If you’re concerned about a contaminated environment, well, we already live in one, yet few of us have chosen to go into a “safe room” and live out our lives there. Imagine what would happen if we all put our safe rooms together and made a safe world. For that to happen, our government would first have to stop its warmongering. In the meantime, we as citizens must exchange fear for the courage to fight for peace.

From Seoul, Korea: Even asking what we should do to protect ourselves against a chemical attack plays into Bush’s fearmongering agenda. The more scared Americans are, the easier it will be to scrap civil liberties and prosecute the “endless war” Bush has talked about. I think acting as if the possibility of a chemical attack is great enough to be discussed in The Nation actually unwittingly gives momentum to the Bush agenda.

I’d argue that it’s better to oppose the fearmongering than to ignore it. Correcting misinformation, providing perspective, countering fear with probability and learning the real risks: These are treatments for the condition of hysteria that George Bush and Tom Ridge have fostered. We are not powerless. We can resist being immobilized by fear, first, by realizing that isolated terrorist acts can’t defeat us and, second, by puncturing propaganda like the empty balloon it is.

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