WASHINGTON -- Turning on the news lately or glancing at the morning paper is about as entertaining as renting "Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives." It's a relentless, nauseating horror show, day after day.
The other morning I was watching TV when a friend walked by and asked, "What's the latest?"
"Death," I said. "Terror. War. Unresolvable global hatred and violence and misery."
"So nothing's new."
These days we check the news to find out if anyone's come up with a novel way to kill us. It's always reassuring to know we're still being terrorized in familiar ways -- the conventional unconventional attacks. Anthrax? Suddenly it's just another part of daily American life.
We adapt and move on. This is what humans do -- we're the hyper-adaptable species that lives from pole to pole, from mountaintops to dense jungles. We are technological creatures who venture to the bottom of ocean trenches, hop around on the moon and orbit the Earth so routinely that people on the ground forget anyone's up there. We can overcome this present reign of terror. We've been through worse than this -- possibly.
When we get on an airplane now, we simply incorporate into our routine a mental checklist for how we will subdue anyone who tries to fly the plane into a building. You make sure your seat is in its full and upright position, buckle your seat belt, secure your tray table and look for objects you can hurl at a hijacker.
(Is all this too, you know, flip? Then read something else! I assure you that everything else in the paper is sufficiently dire and horrifying. Someone's got to do the Terror Humor.)
Tuesday at my office there was an anthrax scare, and the building was quickly surrounded by firetrucks and hazardous-materials vans and hooded guys in orange jumpsuits. Naturally our supervisors passed word that there was nothing to worry about. Why get worried just because the building is being cordoned off with police crime-scene tape and some folks are here looking for the Andromeda Strain? We went about our business. I kept telling myself, "Don't worry, even if it's anthrax, it's probably one of the less lethal strains."
The modern urban person wards off evils through the adoption of expertise. Any day now we'll have memorized the various anthrax brand names, the grades of quality, the milling techniques and grain sizes. We'll find ourselves saying things like, "Stay calm, that Iraqi B-grade doesn't aerosolize too easily."
For weeks now a friend who works in the Senate has been worried that the Capitol is a target. I've tried to be reassuring. In all probability, I said, things will be fine. I think we can all agree that the arrival of an envelope of anthrax and the exposure of more than 30 staffers does not meet the definition of things being "fine." That's so not fine. My friend told me, "I'd get the nostril swab test but the line is about 500 people long." We discussed whether he might find a way to skip to the front of the line. In Washington, cutting to the front of the anthrax test line is what we now refer to as "one of life's little pleasures."
And more details about the attack on Afghanistan are being reported. There's a cheery situation. The place has already been cratered by two decades of war; millions of people face starvation. No one believes this particular military operation will solve the problem of terrorism. It might not even reduce the problem of terrorism. It will only guarantee -- hopefully -- that certain terrorists go from the Most Wanted list to the Most Deceased list.
Osama bin Laden, for all we know, is sitting in a cafe in Amsterdam. His terrorists may have long since wandered off into Pakistan or some other such place, disguised as ordinary fellows who are "between jobs." If they make an offhand remark that indicates a virulent hatred of America, that'll just help them blend in with the crowd.
The other day I was hiking in the woods, which are gloriously colorful right now, and I wondered if the terrorists have ever, even for a moment, paused to enjoy the beauty of nature, the miracle of life on Earth. A recent statement by an al-Qaida spokesman comes to mind: "There are thousands of young people who look forward to death like the Americans look forward to life." My guess is that this guy's not interested in joining the Sierra Club.
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