Knowledge best weapon to kill fear

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2001

I keep thinking of that T.S. Eliot line: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." This is what the terrorists -- whoever they are -- have shown us with their malevolent mailings. By sowing their seeds of anthrax, they hope to reap a harvest of anxiety, fear, panic.

For the anthrax, we have Cipro. But how will we, as a nation, inoculate ourselves against fear?

First, what is this fear? It seems different, somehow, from the general fear of terrorism that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon trailed in their wake. In the past, we tended to think of terrorism as something that happened in an instant: the truck bomb, the suicidal madman strapped with dynamite, the airplane that exploded in midair or dropped from the sky. Being a victim of terror seemed to be an either/or proposition -- either you would be hit or you wouldn't, and you'd know one way or the other in a heartbeat.

The fear of a sudden strike was, and is, formidable, as we saw in the days following Sept. 11. In New York and Washington, bomb scares cleared out buildings and train stations. But when the all-clear came, people were able to go home with the sure knowledge that they had made it through another day safely. Bioterrorism, on the other hand, keeps us guessing. Its weapons are invisible to us, its effects delayed. We monitor every cough and regard each new blemish with suspicion. At the end of the day, we feel we can no longer be certain that we have been spared. Into this gray area, this doubt, falls the shadow of fear.

How can we protect ourselves against such a stealthy and subtle threat without falling prey to fear? Where the shadow falls, we can and must shine the lights of knowledge and reason. Statistical comparisons can be misleading and even patronizing, so it might not be helpful to know that we face exponentially greater risks to life and limb every time we get behind the wheel of a car or set foot outside in a thunderstorm.

Nevertheless, we should heed and appreciate just how small the anthrax threat is compared with the risks posed by other diseases, infectious and otherwise.

For one, the attacks thus far have been highly targeted to specific individuals. For another, anthrax is not contagious. And finally, anthrax in its most common form -- skin anthrax -- is eminently treatable. Its less common form, inhalation anthrax, is treatable if caught in time.

In recent days, this is where the shadow has fallen. The diagnostic system initially failed workers at the Washington, D.C., Brentwood mail facility. The failure cost lives and increased fear. But it has also raised awareness. The American medical community is still learning how to deal with anthrax, and it's important to know that lessons were learned here and are now being applied. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put new protocols in place for backtracking possible points of infection, measures that will make us all safer, not less so.

We all need to dedicate ourselves to thinking rationally and acting responsibly. In this, the White House and Congress must take the lead, with measured action and frank, reliable information. To act out of knowledge rather than ignorance, the American people need to be informed as fully as possible and need to know that their elected representatives are practicing what they preach.

Together we can shine a light to dispel the shadows where fear dwells.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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