- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Whoever is dumping anthrax into the U.S. mail is a pretty clever fellow. Or clever woman, as the case may be. Nobody panics like a politician or a journalist.

The politicians started all this, beginning with the likes of Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert, who wanted to blow the joint and get out of town when the first anthrax spores blew into the Capitol.

The House adjourned and the Senate didn't, leaving the senators with an admonition from Kipling, only slightly garbled: "If you can keep your head while all about you other men are losing theirs, you just don't understand the situation."

You might think that the only media mavens who haven't hit the panic button are the only ones who can't find it.

The Los Angeles Times calls the government's response to the anthrax campaign "a debacle." Time magazine puts a photograph of President Bush on its cover over the line: "On the spot." A growing number of other media motormouths accuse the government of confusion, drift and worse. "The administration's response to the spreading threat of anthrax has been seen by even its supporters as ragged and confused," grumbles the New York Times. Echoes the New York Daily News: "Several administration officials and other Bush sources grumble that the White House has bungled the anthrax crisis with a mishmash of confusion, mixed messages and grudging disclosure."

When the anthrax letters showed up at the office of Tom Brokaw at NBC and at the desk of Dan Rather at CBS, they were enough to make grown men cry, on camera. Rarely has a terrorist got so much bang for so much less than a buck, in these cases just 34 cents for first-class postage stamps. In situations like these the first thing we do is find a suitable scapegoat. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, and Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, are the early favorites, with Mr. Thompson marked as the prime candidate.

The network anchormen, who have to talk a lot whether they have anything to say or not, are particularly rattled. "It seems to me that people are giving us a lot of information before they really know what the facts are," Ted Koppel told Postmaster General John Potter on ABC's "Nightline." (Dispensing information without facts is the function, guaranteed by the Constitution, of television news.) Said Dan Rather to Tom Ridge: "You must be aware that a lot of people around the country are saying, 'Listen, they bungled this thing.'"

The government was in fact slow off the mark, and anthrax should concern every prudent man or woman. Three men have died, two or three others are fighting for their lives, apparently successfully, and three dozen or so others are being treated for a disease that is unusual and all the more scarifying for it. But it's not the end of the world.

You could forgive a visitor from Mars or Venus, however, for thinking so, since the newspapers have broken out their end-of-the-world boxcar typefaces for big, scary headlines, and the television networks, particularly the cable-TV networks, are giving the Great Anthrax Epidemic of Ought-one the sort of 24/7 treatment usually reserved for Washington interns, whether an intern on her knees before a president or an intern missing and presumed dead in the service of a congressman.

The White House should have expected this, of course, since the media, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The war, such as it is, is in Afghanistan, and because the generals insist on fighting it in as much secrecy as they can manage, this leaves the media to stir up something else somewhere else. So far the somewhere else is right here at home. Anthrax was a gift from Allah. As epidemics go, this one is pretty puny stuff. Twenty thousand Americans will die this winter in another epidemic, but flu is old and boring. Everybody gets the flu. It's easier to make three anthrax deaths scary, mysterious, threatening and exciting.

The real news, hidden beneath the palaver, is that the public has so far not indulged in the panic of the press and the politicians. The inevitable public-opinion polls show the opposite: 92 percent of Americans think the mail is safe (ABC-TV), 77 percent are confident the government can respond effectively to an anthrax attack, and 60 percent say the media is overreacting (USA Today).

There's a lot of talk from the press and the politicians about Pearl Harbor and the gung-ho spirit of World War II, but this is not your grandfather's war. The generations that followed World War II were weaned on indulgence, not sacrifice; on fear, not fortitude. George W. and his men (and women) must understand that whatever they do they'll have to do in a hurry. The president should listen to John McCain, if he can bring himself to do it, and "unleash all the might of United States military power to prevail in Afghanistan." And soon.

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