Six weeks into the most modern of conflicts, contemporary war seemed to exhibit the vulgarity (in this sense, universality) that Oscar Wilde said would be needed to make warfare unpopular. The opening offensive was directed at the ordinary, the workaday, the commonplace. And common people, not self-exalted jihad warriors, are showing the bravery and making the sacrifices—in Afghanistan as well as in the United States. Then, in a more Wildean sense of the word "vulgar," there's the anthrax. A cowflop of a weapon has elicited all sorts of bull in response. On October 20 the Los Angeles Times devoted 465 column inches to a disease that had sickened fewer people (some press reports would claim) than the corporation that makes the antibiotic by which the disease is cured. Only five months ago Bayer withdrew the anti-cholesterol drug Baycol after it had been linked to fifty-two deaths.
Fortunately, my family doctor, William Hughes, has expertise in the most virulent aspect of anthrax—publicity. Hughes is married to the ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton. He suggested that I get a Ciproflaxin prescription, lest anyone think I was too far down the journalism food chain to receive threatening mail. And indeed, there have been threats in my mail, but only the usual from Visa, American Express, and the landlord.
One of the first anthrax attacks was made against the company that owns The National Enquirer. The company's name is displayed in large letters on its suburban Florida offices: AMERICAN MEDIA. Perhaps al Qaeda is less sophisticated than we feared. "Ah," thought the bin Laden operatives, "here is where the American media have their place of headquarters." On the other hand, considering the role of supermarket tabloids in America's life of the mind, perhaps al Qaeda is more sophisticated than we thought.
Anyway, the media were enormously reassuring, simultaneously telling the public that members of the public won't contract anthrax and giving nonstop coverage to the members of the public who did, will, or might. Then Tom Ridge, the head of the Office of Homeland Security, came on the air, reminding us how much "Homeland Security" sounds like a failed savings-and-loan. Didn't Grandma lose $15,000 in a CD when Homeland Security went under? The media also recounted the complete list of symptoms for all three types of anthrax infection—symptoms that correspond to those of the common cold, the flu, a hangover, acne, and eating the church-picnic potato salad.
According to CNN on October 19, being infected with the intestinal form of anthrax results in "nausea, lack of appetite, and fever." And so—if boiling rage counts as fever—does being on a commercial flight. I've flown on ten since September 11, owing to an author tour for a badly timed collection of light humorous essays. (Not that I'm complaining about being knocked off the medium-well-seller list by people who spent ten minutes with Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law in 1976. Especially not after hearing publishing-world scuttlebutt about a certain Manhattan novelist, famous for tales of fashion models and drug excess, whose reaction on September 11, it's said, was to exclaim how glad he was that he didn't have a book out. Discriminating readers are always glad when he doesn't have a book out.)
I understand that airport security may soon be turned over to the government, so that a federal agency can do the same fine job of protecting the nation in the future that the CIA and the FBI did in early September. Meanwhile, "heightened security precautions" are allowing airlines to perfect their technique of treating passengers like convicted felons and providing all the transportation amenities usually accorded to smuggled cockatoos.
At the Los Angeles airport I watched as an elderly man was forced to remove his buckle shoes and send them through the carry-on-baggage x-ray. In Ontario, California, a friend was meeting me at the airport. Of course, he couldn't wait at curbside. He had to circle through the arrivals lane while slugs (slugs with valid photo IDs!) delivered my checked bags. On the fourth go-around a policeman stepped into the road and told my friend that if he drove by one more time, he'd be ticketed.
What's causing the giant python lines at airport security checkpoints remains a mystery. An acquaintance, a plastic surgeon who specializes in cranial reconstruction, was returning from a conference on head injuries on September 11. His hand luggage contained three human skulls. These passed unremarked through the x-ray screening.
Doubtless all sorts of civil rights are to be sacrificed temporarily in times of crisis. But there is no ACLU for comfort and convenience. A generation hence we'll be living in a world of metal detectors in nudist colonies.
Traveling around the country has, however, allowed me to see how different regions of America are coping with current events. On October 9 a TV anchorman in Washington, D.C., called Islam (using an adjective perhaps left behind by the sudden journalistic shift away from celebrity obsession) "the second most popular religion on earth." It has an amazing Q Factor, too, that Islam.
At about the same time, aided by the Internet, there was a cheerful realization nationwide that "Taliban" scans perfectly in "The Banana Boat Song":
Come Mr. Taliban, rid me of Osama.
Air Force come and it flatten me home. Cruise missile,
Tomahawk, Half-ton bomb.
Air Force come and it flatten me home.
On October 16, in Austin, Texas, local TV reported that the Austin Fire Department had responded to a call from a household concerning a "suspicious package." The sole suspicious thing about the package was that it had been mailed from New York City.
On October 19 a chipper announcer for KFWB radio, in southern California, said, "Anthrax news certainly has Orange County people talking ..." Later that day, at a lunch in Simi Valley, I was sitting next to someone from the Ventura County district attorney's office. He said that local 911 dispatchers were being overwhelmed by anthrax alarms, and that the only practical decontamination response would be to have people get naked and be hosed down. That evening, on the set of a public-television book show, T. C. Boyle talked about how he has a certain admiration for acts of "ecotage," but in his fiction he tries to show both sides of the story. He managed never to mention September 11.
I can remember when powdery white substances of sinister origin were doing a lot more damage to Americans than anthrax has done so far. Circa 1980 Americans were suffering "nasaltage." It emptied bank accounts, wrecked marriages, sabotaged thousands of careers, and brought the nation to its knees (with a soda straw, over a glass coffee table). But Attorney General John Ashcroft has been very firm in stating that anthrax threats are no laughing matter. Pranks and jests concerning anthrax will be treated as serious criminal actions. Thus various larval jokes with "You've got mail" punch lines must be allowed to die before maturation. And the heavy-metal band Anthrax is considering changing its name—presumably to Chicken Pox.
Are we as a nation forgetting what our international critics have been saying for years? Aren't we supposed to be a big, terrifying nation—a Godzilla of capitalism, wrecking the globe? Since when does Godzilla flip out because he might have brushed against something in the mail room while he was devouring Trenton, New Jersey? Since when does Godzilla turn (devastating) tail and scamper to Mexico to buy Cipro over the counter? I trust this is a momentary lapse. And I'm sure that Osama bin Laden is discovering, midst smart bombs and Delta forces, that America isn't scared—America is scary.