with thanks to David Rees
From chapter 3: Anthrax: Hysteria
A week earlier, Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the scandal sheet Sun, in Boca Raton, Florida, had died of anthrax. He was an Englishman who’d become an American citizen. He’d retired not long ago—he was 63 -- but got bored and came back. His infection had been announced just the day before. That Sunday another employee of the Sun’s parent company—American Media, Inc.—tested positive for anthrax. Spores were located on Stevens’s keyboard. On Wednesday, a third employee tested positive. And today – Friday, October 12 -- someone at NBC who had handled a suspect letter had tested positive.
Hidden messages: could anyone have shown me a pattern, please? Sudden green concussions and a nasal swab for anthrax testing. What the hell is the matter with Palm Beach County, Florida? This was where George W. Bush became, butterfly ballot by butterfly ballot, our 43rd president. This was where (reportedly) the wife of the Sun’s editor rented apartments to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Among American Media’s titles, the Weekly World News had called bin Laden “a lily-livered piece of crap,” the National Enquirer had marketed bin Laden toilet paper and the Globe had said bin Laden was a “mentally ill, drug-addicted fanatic” with “underdeveloped sexual organs.” Was Robert Stevens dead because of tabloid insults? Or was someone so mad at the American media and so ill-informed that he or she simply mailed off some deadly poison c/o American Media? Was Judy covered in white powder because she had co-written (with Times colleagues William Broad and Stephen Engelberg) a book called “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War”?
Of course, Judy’s colleagues ran over to help her get the powder off and got it on themselves. Soon the hazardous-materials team came to seal off the area. The building exits were closed, then the whole building locked down. The lobby was jammed with Times people who couldn’t go anywhere. One of our Op-Ed team, Nora, was stuck outside. The rest of us were in our little corner room on the 10th floor when the announcement came over our public-address system that we should stay at our desks and there was no reason to evacuate the building. Someone cried out (was it me?), “That’s what they said in the South Tower!”
And then we stayed at our desks to get out the weekend pages. The Times was getting used to this sort of thing—whatever This Sort of Thing was—and by early evening we had got a memo saying an emergency information number had been established. We were asked to put our personal information onto the company intranet, including where each of us would be this weekend, just in case. (Soon we were told to inform our supervisors what floors we had been on that day.) Mail service was suspended indefinitely. We were told not to open any already delivered mail that (point #1) seemed “suspicious” or (point # 2) “is postmarked from Florida.”
I got home very late. Becky insisted I take my clothes off in the foyer and put them in a plastic bag. This could have been sensible, or hysterical. I had no idea. I did learn that undressing like that offered one more new experience of humiliation.
Was hysteria the sensible reaction? On October 9, David Rees, a young writer in Brooklyn, had begun posting a comic strip on-line. It featured clip art, static images of people at work. Each panel was usually a single person with a phone to his or her ear and a speech bubble above. Rees hit the hysteria note perfectly. He had a whole new series of panels this Sunday.
Guy in his office says: “You know, us bombing Afghanistan isn’t going to do shit—except for somehow releasing anthrax throughout America! Can we just fucking surrender or something? Fuck Operation: Enduring Freedom, I want some Operation: My Ass Enduring Without Anthrax!”
Panel # 2, woman sitting at her desk says: “For real! So Osama bin Laden becomes our president—so what? All of a sudden I’m not allowed to read or go to work and men can throw acid at me if they can see my face? Shit, that’s better than anthrax!”
Guy replies: “I want to take out a full-page ad in the newspaper: Dear Whoever Is Mailing All the Anthrax All Over the Place—You can be my ruler! Now can I please just forswear alcohol and denounce Israel or whatever so I can fucking open my credit card offers without thinking my organs are gonna turn inside-out?”