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The Sum of All Fears

Threats, deaths and warfare add up to a nation of experts on various types of fear.


Recently the news became too much for Sarah Bird's 12-year-old son, Gabriel. He lined a closet with pillows and blankets and insisted his parents join him in his comfy new bunker. But it got stuffy in there, not to mention boring, and there were chores to do, and soon the bunker was abandoned for the routines of normal life.

It wasn't terrorists or anthrax that spooked Gabriel. It was the tornado warning that crawled across the bottom of the TV screen, the screen that continually reports alarming messages of a different sort to the members of his household. We're all picking over a wide selection of fears these days, and Gabriel--an angelic-looking expert at video game mayhem--chose threatening weather as his personal bte noire . To each his own.

Eight weeks after the terrorist attacks, fear in all its permutations has become another story of the day, the subtext of the CNN crawl (log on to for the latest bulletins!), a subject to be monitored, cataloged, deconstructed. We've parsed fear as a Bad Thing (giving in to it means the terrorists win) and a Good Thing (not only a normal reaction to horrifying events, but a possibility for finding more meaning in our shallow lives). It instructs us in old history lessons (remember how wartime hysteria shredded civil liberties and put Japanese Americans in internment camps?) and new realities (the terror is not going away, so get used to it). We've all become experts on fear. And for some, that status is not so new.

"This whole emotional landscape is so familiar, it's like coming home," says Bird, a screenwriter and novelist who grew up on Strategic Air Command bases at the height of the Cold War. Her latest book, "The Yokota Officers' Club," is a wry coming-of-age story about an Air Force brat much like herself, whose father flew spy missions over Russia and whose large family absorbed dread, stoicism and gallows humor in its bones. Nine of the 10 flight crews in Bird's father's reconnaissance squadron never returned from their missions. During air raid drills at her schools, she and her classmates trooped to camouflaged bomb shelters--camouflaged because they were enemy targets.

"We were always poised right there in front of the great Soviet maw, ready to be swallowed up at any second," says Bird from her home in a quiet oak-shaded neighborhood in Austin, Texas. "You're scared? Of course you're scared. But no one, in fact, cares about your feelings. You can get killed, your whole family can get killed, deal with it. You get some security, get some guards at the gate, and move forward."

Something to Fear at Every Turn

So, move forward. Easier said than done now that big-screen horrors--hijacked planes and collapsing skyscrapers--have morphed into a creepier dread of the small elements of everyday life: toxic mail, bridges marked as targets, strangers in airports, even the sight of a plane overhead. There are too many gates and not nearly enough guards. Dan Rather's pronouncement that "our biggest problem is not anthrax--our biggest problem is fear" seemed a reasonable, though cliched, admonition a few weeks ago. But as the news about anthrax acquired a certain ominous weight, being afraid began to seem like an appropriate response to outlandish events.

"To say that fear is unhealthy and unhelpful is like saying that poverty is bad," wrote Jacob Weisberg in Slate, the online magazine. "No one knows that better than the poor themselves--or, in this case, the frightened. But they can't just wish it away." Nor can most of us retreat to our pillow-lined closets until the dark cloud passes.

What we can do "is be realistic about what the real dangers are and act accordingly," says Barry Glassner, a USC sociologist and author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things."

In terms of a real public health threat, anthrax still pales beside everyday illnesses such as chickenpox, which annually causes far more deaths in this country. But Glassner believes deeper cultural anxieties may be stoking our dread of bioterrorism.

"With tens of millions of Americans uninsured and many more concerned about the state of our public health system, it takes only a small number of anthrax cases to create a high degree of alarm," he says.

It also takes 24-hour news channels, a cacophony of worried media voices and the incessant crawl across the bottom of the screen with the latest reports on all that's going wrong, from the sputtering economy to misguided bombs in Afghanistan. The result, in those prone to anxiety, is what's called an "obsessive rumination cycle" that's difficult to break. "I've put some of my patients on media abstinence," says a prominent Seattle psychiatrist. "No CNN, no reading of the news except Newsweek or Time once a week. And it's worked."

Rational Responses, Irrational Anxiety

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