"Cipro?" asks the pharmacist in Nick Anderson's October 10 editorial cartoon.
No, replies an obviously shaken customer holding out his prescription, "Valium!"
Why are the American people acting as if they need a megadose of tranquilizers?
We normally enjoy a media diet of (to use sociologist Barry Glassner's term) "hyperbolized hazards"—stories of shark attacks, amusement park accidents, and school violence, all of them engaging and all of them statistically improbable dangers.
But since September 11, the plague has come nigh our dwelling. Average Americans were killed by terrorists as they worked at their desks, waited for elevators, sipped overpriced espresso drinks, and sat on routine flights. Since then, rank-and-file postal workers have died because they handled mail for high-profile politicians and news anchors.
Yet people have overreacted to real hazards: White-powder worries have paralyzed the efforts of police and wasted the resources of fire-department hazmat units. Qantas "cordoned off" an airliner after a passenger spotted white powder—on a pastry included with his in-flight meal. Paranoid passengers drove Northwest Airlines to discontinue supplying powdered coffee creamer and sweeteners. Some Americans have hoarded Cipro, or taken the antibiotic with no reason to believe they had been exposed to anthrax.
What is the problem with worry? In addition to the waste of social resources, such overreaction is first of all an occasion for sin. There is a Screwtape moment in the comic apocalypse Good Omens, when an up-to-date tempter talks with two demons straight out of the fourteenth century. The old-fashioned demons report their day's work as planting doubt in the mind of a priest by making him look at pretty girls and corrupting a politician by making him think that a tiny bribe would not hurt. But the up-to-date demon reports that he tied up every mobile phone system in Central London for 45 minutes at lunchtime. The old-fashioned demons don't get it.
"What could he tell them? That twenty thousand people got bloody furious? … That then they went back took it out on their secretaries … , and they took it out on other people? In all kinds of vindictive little ways which … they thought up themselves. … The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousand and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish."
Misplaced worry in response to hyperbolized hazards forces out both the everyday kindnesses that make life better and the generosity of spirit that makes it possible for us to open ourselves to new people and try new experiences. It also ruins relationships as people take out their frustrations on spouses, children, and coworkers. By protecting ourselves excessively, we diminish ourselves greatly.
Second, it draws us from spending our energies on more important things. When Proverbs 24:19 tells us not to "fret ourselves" because of evildoers, it uses a verb that means to heat oneself. The English idiom "to stew" captures this metaphor for us. When we stew, we are preoccupied with ourselves—our safety, our health, our finances, our futures. And putting ourselves in the stewpot of anxiety saps our energies that might be spent on genuine achievement, personal growth, and service.
And since most of us are not likely to be targets of the terrorists, this can be a form of egoism. When the Arizona Republic announced it would no longer accept letters to the editor through the mails, electronic newsletter entrepreneur Randy Cassingham dubbed the paper the "21st-Century Egotist." Such egotism, he said, "belongs to people who think they're important enough to be a target." What he said about the newspaper, applies to a lot of individuals.
But pathological, paralyzing worry is not only an occasion for sin, it is an occasion for service. And service distracts us from our anxieties. In Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, it is the priest and the Levite who let their anxieties dictate their course of inaction. The Samaritan displays not only mercy, but also confidence and generosity. He risks, and should the story have turned out different, had he been assaulted and robbed because of his compassion, he would still have been the hero.
Let us arm ourselves with realism. We are still more likely to die of cholesterol-induced heart disease than anthrax.
Let us equip ourselves with charity. People are both good and bad. Let us open ourselves to the good they bring.
Let us strengthen ourselves to endure. When Jesus spoke of the genuine evils that his followers would face in the last days, he told them these were "but the beginnings of the birth-pangs" and that "he who endures to the end will be saved." So what if all our imagined threats were to become real? Jesus calls us to trust the Holy Spirit for guidance and to go on living.
Let us be warriors in prayer. And not only for the safety and well-being of our loved ones. The people of Afghanistan will suffer much this winter from hunger, cold, and disease. Pray for them. Allied armed forces will be often in harm's way. Pray for them. And many hearts in the Islamic world are bewildered by conflicting messages as triumphalist versions of their faith vie with voices that advocate human-rights, individual dignity, and social order. Pray that they will know the truth.
Trust in God's providence, in the ultimate goodness toward which he draws the world, though it be along a path of death and destruction—this (and not Valium nor Cipro) is what makes it possible for us to live as Christians in anxious times.
David Neff is editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Shortly after the attacks, Christianity Today excerpted from a September 16, 1991, editorial which said fear has its place for Christians—but it must not be controlling.
See Nick Anderson's editorial cartoon referred to in the article.
For more coverage of the anthrax scare, see Yahoo's full coverage area.
Christianity Today essays and analysis following September 11 include:
Where Was God on 9/11? | Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (Oct.23, 2001)
Judgment Day | God promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks? (Sept. 25, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Was September 11 the Beginning of the End? | Observers say geography and gravity of attacks have led to little prophecy speculation. (Sept. 19, 2001)
Books & Culture Corner: The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)above all else.
Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Christianity Today dispatches from New York City:
Day of Terror, Day of Grace | In the wake of fatal attacks killing thousands, Christians steer America toward prayer, service, and reconciliation. (Sept. 25, 2001)
Where I Minister, Grace Abounds Over Sin | At Ground Zero, a New York pastor becomes a symbol that God is present and available. (Sept. 24, 2001)
The End of the World (Trade Center) | Dispatches from out of the dust. (Sept. 19, 2001)
'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)
In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)