U.S.

A Threat Scarier than Anthrax Attacks or Suicide Bombers

Flowers and a flag are left on names on the National 9/11 Memorial during ceremonies marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York, September 11, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
COVID-19 comes to New York City.

On Twitter, I asked fellow New Yorkers whether they were more scared after 9/11 or now. To my surprise, nearly everyone reported being more scared after 9/11. To me, the fear today is much worse.

I was a few blocks north of the Twin Towers when they fell, and I well remember the grim, aching, heavy mood that settled over New York City afterward. Even six miles north of Ground Zero, where I lived and still do, the putrid burning-tire scent was unmistakable for weeks. And that almost literal cloud of death was matched by a dark cloud of mourning. Bars and restaurants were notably underpopulated. Parties were canceled. All over downtown Manhattan there were dizzying, heartbreaking handbills. People randomly pasted to walls and fences photographs of their missing loved ones, as though any survivors of the World Trade Center attacks would have failed to contact their families as soon as possible.

I wasn’t disoriented or even really redirected by fear, though. America immediately stiffened up antiterrorism measures at transportation hubs, so it seemed like a copycat attack would have been extremely difficult to pull off. And as for a smaller-scale assault, I didn’t particularly fear that either. Call me blithe, but I thought it tremendously unlikely that a man in a suicide vest would show up in whatever restaurant or subway car I happened to be in at any given moment. What I felt after 9/11 was mourning and sadness, with only a manageable level of fear for the future beneath it.

There’s a strong possibility that COVID-19 will kill far more than 3,000 New Yorkers, and it will certainly kill far more than 3,000 Americans. It seems likely to inflict more economic damage than 9/11 also. But these are measurable factors. How do you measure fear? Perhaps my memories have faded so much that they’re misleading me, but I believe I felt nothing like today’s level of fear in the fall of 2001. Terrorism can be checked, sometimes even foiled. An invisible pathogen, potentially coming to claim more lives than al-Qaeda did on 9/11, can’t be turned away by metal detectors or be shot by police; it doesn’t have its bags checked at the door. Unlike a man in a suicide vest, a virus isn’t an extreme rarity but a natural, ordinary life form. Unlike Mohammed Atta and Co., it can be and kill everywhere at once, and it doesn’t have to die in the process.

I was quite sure no one in my home wanted to kill me after 9/11. Today, I don’t even know whether I myself am carrying the virus. A killer could be in my lungs right now. Even in its mild form, the virus could put me and everyone else in my household through a week or more of nasty illness. Even if I have no symptoms whatsoever, I could pass it along to a family member who could suffer. I could pass it to my daughter, who has asthma. I could pick up the virus from a park bench or a subway pole or a checkout counter at the grocery store. After 9/11, my mood was somber but my daily life was pretty much exactly the same as before, and except for a few days of disruption, New York City went on almost exactly as before. Today the city is all but shuttered. My family routines have been turned inside out. And none of us knows how long all of this disruption will last.

More than 9/11, the virus brings to mind what will soon, I suppose, be a forgotten footnote to history: the bizarre bioterrorism campaign in which a series of anthrax-laced letters, sent through the mail, killed five people and sickened 17 others. Like the destruction of the World Trade Center, the anthrax scare was right in my face. Two of those injured in the attack worked at NBC and the New York Post, each of which were within a stone’s throw of my then-office in the Time-Life Building, and each of which got their mail from the same distribution hub underneath Rockefeller Center. At the time, I was the books editor of People magazine and was opening 50 packages a day. A woman in Connecticut, where my mother lived, was killed when she opened an envelope containing anthrax. A man at American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, a common sight alongside People magazine in grocery stores, was also killed by mailed anthrax. Everyone who worked in the media in New York City and got mail seemed to have bullseyes on our foreheads. Five dead may be a rounding error in a country of 300 million, but the bizarre, random, unexplained nature of the attacks made them far scarier than ordinary murders. What did murdering a random 94-year-old woman in Connecticut have to do with any political ideology anyway? It’s the most nebulous, unpredictable, uncertain dangers that are the most terrifying ones. Coronavirus 2020 feels like Anthrax 2001 — except maybe times a million.

We’ll be fortunate if, at some point in the not too distant future, we can look back on this month and say our fears were overblown and the steps we took to fight the virus were too draconian. For now, though, extreme measures certainly seem justified given the outcomes being projected by epidemiologists. If you aren’t particularly scared by the coronavirus, I congratulate you. But I am.

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