U.S.: Pervasive Anxiety (Wash. Post)

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Headline: Terror Attacks Spark A Pervasive Anxiety -- 'My Heart Keeps Telling Me Something Else' Will Happen

Source: Washington Post, 19 September 2001; Page A23

URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52811-2001Sep18.html

[my comments follow below!]

She does not want to overreact, but a mother in Texas is standing in line to buy gas masks for her children. In Boston, panicky customers flee a shopping mall after fire alarms go off because of a burned pie in a pizza oven.

And all day long, lawyer Monroe Whitesides looks out his window in Charlotte, N.C., at the towering Bank of America headquarters and just cannot stop himself. He imagines a jet airplane, a liquidy flash of orange flame, and then collapse.

There are few reports of Americans becoming hysterical in the wake of the terrorist attacks. No stockpiling of canned goods; no rush on the banks.

Yet there is a palpable change of mood. Outside the twin epicenters of New York and Washington, the feeling is perhaps not fear, but rather a draining, distracting anxiety, like a national case of the jitters. It is so pervasive that yesterday the Federal Communications Commission announced that radio and television stations could temporarily suspend their regular testing of the Emergency Alert System to avoid arousing needless fear that the United States is being attacked.

"My heart keeps telling me something else is going to happen," said Roscoe Warren, mayor of Homestead, Fla., where Hurricane Andrew destroyed tens of thousands of homes in 1992. "I don't know if I'm paranoid, but I'm really worried for the average citizen of America." Warren remains at his post in city hall, and by and large Americans are back at work and school. The nation is anything but paralyzed.

Still, people are more alert, more watchful. As one office worker in Los Angeles put it: "It's not normal to spend the day looking for suspicious packages."

Paul Steiner, 52, marketing manager for a tourism company in Orlando, has been thinking a lot in the past week about the atom bomb drills of his childhood. "I think right now, we don't know where paranoia begins. Paranoia and rational thought kind of overlap," he said. "Our government is saying be alert, and nobody knows what that means. If you see something that is sort of unusual and it alarms you, it may be over the top, but everybody is so frightened."

Americans are witnessing heightened security precautions all around them: at their office parks and manufacturing plants, at shopping centers, military bases, airports, power generators, schools and houses of worship.

Chad Hartman, 36, lives a life on the road as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team. He'll be back in the air in a few weeks: "Will my head be on a swivel? No. Will I feel as comfortable as I would have a couple of weeks ago? No."

While the residents of New York and Washington, especially, rightfully remain on edge, so do many people in cities with ties to the terrorist attacks, such as Boston and Los Angeles, where, respectively, two of the hijacked flights departed and three were headed.

"The major components of stress and anxiety are unpredictability and loss of control," said Boston College psychology professor Joe Tecce. "Perception is more important than reality when it comes to being jittery."

The John Hancock Tower, the tallest structure in Boston at 60 stories, has closed its observatory deck, and concrete barriers surround the building. "Part of me feels more secure and part of me is frightened," said Susan Boasi, a children's clothing designer who lives next door to the tower. "If the John Hancock is a secondary target and is hit, I'm dead."

In the week since the hijackings, Boasi said she has been unable to do any creative work; for now, she refuses to fly or even take the train. "It's very unsettling to think these people were walking among us," she said. "Anytime I hear sirens I just think, 'Oh God, now what?' "

Some people say they need to take active steps to protect themselves. In Spotsylvania, Va., police said a 3-year-old boy fatally shot himself with the handgun his father said he brought into the house for protection after the terrorist attacks.

At a military surplus store in Austin, the Banana Bay Trading Company, the owner's father, Karl Nutting, said customers began a run on gas masks immediately after last week's attacks. The store sold out its stock of the $29.95 Israeli-made masks in a day or so. There's now a waiting list with about 200 names. "We're also getting a lot of calls for chemical warfare suits," Nutting said.

One of those on the waiting list for gas masks is Jade Lindquist, 41, a computer programmer for Motorola in Austin. She wants four: one for herself; one for her husband, Estes, who works in hotel sales; and one each for their daughters, ages 2 and 4. Before the attack, she said, she could not have imagined buying gas masks. "I guess I feel kind of embarrassed for looking like a paranoid type," Lindquist said. "We're just normal kind of people. I mean, we don't keep guns in the house or anything like that."

But on Sunday, Lindquist read a newspaper article that frightened her -- an article about Osama bin Laden possibly having access to chemical weapons. Since then, she has been haunted by thoughts of her daughters dying in a chemical attack. "I even sent a message to President Bush today, which I've never done before, saying, 'What kind of plan do you have for your citizens?' I told him not to do any attacking until he tells us his plan if there's retaliation. Make sure the people are equipped."

Nancy Brumfield lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, and for the past seven months she has slipped into a comfortable routine of commuting to Salt Lake City weekly for her marketing job. Today, there is nothing comfortable or complacent about her routine -- or her life, she said. "I had tremendous anxiety Sunday night thinking about getting on that plane Monday morning," she said yesterday. "I knew that I needed to get on with my life, but I found myself reassessing if this is how I wanted to live. It was very hard."

Brumfield eventually got on the plane -- but not before she ran back into her home at 5 a.m. to hug her husband goodbye one more time, and not before she steeled herself for the 90-minute flight. Once on the plane, she found herself nervously glancing around at her fellow travelers -- not necessarily looking for terrorists, but watching for "some sort of lunatic who might take advantage of situation."

"Personally I am very worried right now," said Brumfield, 47, an executive vice president for marketing for Franklin Covey Co. "I'm worried for the safety of my family. I'm concerned that people are not really listening to what our leaders are saying. I'm worried that there will be another strike before we fully secure the nation."

Francine Lovett confesses to feeling the same way. The 40-year-old dental hygienist in Birmingham says she has not had a full night's sleep in the week since the attacks. "Part of it is anxiety," Lovett said. "But the other part of it is something like guilt. I need to turn the TV on to see what is happening. I need to be informed, and find out that nothing else is going on while I'm taking the liberty of sleeping. Sleeping would be a luxury. How dare I sleep?"

Lovett has also seriously questioned her faith. "I have always had a strong personal relationship with God," she said. "But I have even questioned that. I know when you're a faithful person, you have to put everything in God's hands. But I've even been second-guessing God. It's just my insecurity."


It’s hard to know where to begin. Just a few of many comments one could make:

...In Boston, panicky customers flee a shopping mall after fire alarms go off...

Ummm, isn’t this what is *supposed* to happen when fire alarms go off? Perhaps a small benefit of this tragedy is people will act more sensibly?

...Americans becoming hysterical... No stockpiling of canned goods; no rush on the banks...

Proud and prepared doomers did "this" (sort of) long ago, slowly and thoughtfully. The journalists clearly think having more than a couple cans of soup in your kitchen is a sign of panic. We’ve been through this odd attitude before, as I recall, circa 1999. Remember the joke from a few years ago, “Panic now, avoud the rush”?

..."It's not normal to spend the day looking for suspicious packages."...

Go ask any Israeli, indeed any Parisian or Londoner. Yes, it is normal, sorry to say. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.

...a 3-year-old boy fatally shot himself with the handgun his father said he brought into the house for protection after the terrorist attacks...

A preventable tragedy. When people wait too long to prepare for the dangerous world we have always lived in, they “panic” instead of learning how to properly and safely use the tools they indeed ought to have.

..."We're just normal kind of people. I mean, we don't keep guns in the house or anything like that."...

Of course, since it is estimated something around half of American households already have firearms, for this woman half the country is abnormal. It really amounts to “flyover country” versus the coastal megalopolises, I guess.

...Paranoia and rational thought kind of overlap...

The difference is between knowing and preparing for the *real* world, versus being asleep. An awful lot of people have been asleep. As Jeff Cooper says in reference to the “color code” for being alert, one can and should function through each day at Code Yellow – which is not the same as being paranoid. America has been in Code White for a long time...sound asleep.

Time to wake up.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), September 19, 2001


"Code Yellow" -- good image. Thanks, Andre.

-- L. Hunter Cassells (mellyrn@castlemark-honey.com), September 19, 2001.

I recently finished reading a study on the psycho-social affects of war on US Soldiers in combat. It's called "The World Within War, America's Combat Experience in World War II," by Gerald F. Linderman.

It interests me that the people described above are all coping in their own ways to the affect of combat, as described in that book (and others, such several by Stephen Ambrose.)

However, I doubt if any of the people in the story were in any actual danger themselves.

But, they undoubtedly did see the crimes in action, over and over on TV. And they reacted to what they saw, with the results given above. And they reacted as soldiers do, not civilians.



-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), September 19, 2001.

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