This editorial appeared in Saturday's Los Angeles Times:
We do not mean to minimize the seriousness of the anthrax incidents, particularly the death of a photo editor at a tabloid paper in Boca Raton, Fla. But some perspective is in order.
No case since the original has been life-threatening, according to news reports, and suspicions about the source of the bacterial infection have remained nothing more than just that, suspicions, so far. Police and federal officials released information in tiny bits, and what would probably have been regarded as grudge crimes before Sept. 11 became national feasts of speculation. Powdery substances, slippery substances, Florida postmarks. How could people not be anxious?
What is known has changed little despite the confirmed cases and far more numerous scares and rumors. Do a risk assessment. You're more likely to die crossing a street than by contracting anthrax. A hiker is more likely to be hit by lightning, a jogger to drop dead of a heart attack. Caution is in order; what's not in order is competing with neighbors for the last bottle of Cipro antibiotic pills in the pharmacy.
A New York Post headline, after a case of nonlethal skin anthrax turned up at NBC: "Red Alert." Well, no. The problem right now is not the risk of anthrax to Americans; it is copycat crimes.
Any disturbed person with an envelope and some suspicious-looking substance can dream of causing panic, tying up police and firefighters and shutting down businesses. Local and federal officials need to make it known, loudly and repeatedly, that anyone caught in such a copycat "prank" will be treated like a passenger handing a threatening note to a flight attendant.
Something very bad did happen in Boca Raton. Something potentially very bad did happen at NBC. But despite the parade of TV doctors, alarmed-looking anchors and pumped-up tabloid headline writers, Americans will have to remind themselves to put the anthrax "assault" in perspective.
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