"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 ...1
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