Sealing anxiety inside

An Englishwoman reports from Washington on the impact of America's 'orange alert'.

Helen Searls

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Topics Politics

Once again, Washington DC has been thrown into a state of panic. On 7 February 2003, President George W Bush raised the nation’s ‘threat index’ from yellow to orange, indicating that the USA is now facing a ‘high risk’ of terrorist attack. For more than a week, Washington waited anxiously for some kind of unspecified atrocity to strike.

As the waiting continues, the US government’s handling of events has done little to ease people’s concerns.

From the outset, the White House’s vagueness about the nature of the threat gave free hand to an orgy of media speculation about the possibility of everything from dirty bombs and nuclear attacks to chemical warheads and biological hazards hitting the nation’s capital. This has done little to put people’s minds at rest.

Anxiety levels also rose in response to government assurances that security throughout the city had been raised. The sight of armed guards and police downtown unnerved many. When we then learned from the local news bulletins that defence systems such as surface-to-air missiles now encircle the city, many residents felt positively unsafe.

But what probably tipped most people over the edge was the advice offered by Tom Ridge, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, a few days after the president’s announcement. Maybe in an effort to offer people something tangible to do, Mr Ridge counselled citizens to prepare for the worst and ensure that every home had its own personal preparedness plan.

Ridge urged every household to get in provisions like bottled water (one gallon per person per day) and a large supply of non-perishable food (such as canned goods, power bars and dried fruit). A flashlight, spare batteries, a hand-operated can opener, a portable radio and, most bizarrely, duct tape and plastic sheeting were also essential.

Initially we were told to store these items in a designated safe room in the house. In the event of a biochemical attack we were to gather the family in this ‘safe’ room, sealing it from the inside with the duct tape and the plastic sheeting to prevent any toxins from killing us.

The reactions to all this information about threats and homespun survival advice reveal that the residents of the nation’s capital are becoming extremely uneasy.

Of course, not everyone rushed out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting – although enough people did for all of the local hardware stores to sell out of both these things. One man in the middle of Connecticut has even chosen to wrap his entire home in plastic sheeting affixed with duct tape, just to be on the safe side. Yet many people were naturally cynical of the government’s advice and have had a field day in ridiculing the recommendations.

One friend pointed out that the prospect of gathering her own rather volatile family into one small room for three hours, let alone three days, was a total nightmare. Far from being the safe haven that Tom Ridge imagines, they would probably all kill one another in a family row long before the gas could take effect.

Others pointed out that the notion of making a room airtight was a positive suicide mission. Over the past week, as the press actually thought through what was being advised, we learnt that the average family would last just three hours in a normal-sized room, before the oxygen levels ran out and the entire family died of suffocation.

Others still have used a rather desperate fatalism to brush off the government’s advice. Many in Washington now argue that if anything really catastrophic happens, then we will all be dead anyway. If we are all going to die, this line of argument goes, there is little or nothing we can do, so what is the point in being personally prepared?

But while people have made a joke of personal preparedness plans, the sense that we are all in danger has had a profound impact. Many who scoffed at the government’s advice admit that they have planned their own escape route from the city if disaster should strike. Others have taken things even further. A teacher friend reports that some anxious parents have already taken their children out of school, and have moved away from the city for a few months until the crisis is over.

Even for those who were not particularly anxious at the beginning, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the general sense of panic that is taking hold.

Since the code orange came into effect, local business leaders have been called to government seminars to plan for the worst. Every workplace is now supposed to have its own emergency plan. The local metro and bus services have also been told to prepare to deal with a crisis.

Schoolchildren in DC public schools have also gone through special emergency drills this week to prepare for the worst. My own three-year-old had to sit very quietly in the corridor with his classmates for a few minutes while his school enacted their own drill. Although I’m certain he had no idea what he was doing, he told me that it was very scary and had to hug his teacher when it was all over for consolation.

We have since had a letter urging us to bring in supplies of power bars and water for the little ones should they be locked in school for days on end. We have also had a letter from the principal outlining the evacuation plan for the school, should disaster strike.

Ironically, as the week progressed, the government criticised people for overreacting to events. Eight days after issuing his warnings, President Bush urged Americans just to ‘go about their lives,’ and trust the government to deal with the terrorist threat (1). Tom Ridge has also done an about-turn, claiming that he never really meant for people to seal themselves into safe rooms.

But with the prospect that your child might be locked in school for days on end, sitting on the floor of a bleak corridor eating power bars and sipping water, it is little surprise that few have been able to keep the actual level of this so-called threat in proportion. Washingtonians have simply added these latest developments to a series of disturbing events – from 9/11 to anthrax attacks to the sniper shootings – that seem to have afflicted the capital in recent months. It is little wonder that local doctors are reporting record numbers of patients displaying anxiety and stress disorders in the past week.

Across the USA, the state of panic seems to be having a detrimental impact. According to some reports, a fear of terrorist attack contributed to the tragic events at a Chicago nightclub on 17 February 2003, where 21 people were killed in a stampede after someone released pepper spray to stop a fight. ‘People were scared because someone said it was a terrorist gas attack’, said one nightclub attendee (2).

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, the only thing that has done anything to contain the rising sense of panic has not been government reassurances or appeals for calm, but the weather. When between two and three feet of snow descended on the city, things literally ground to a halt. When the main concern is how are you going to get to the end of your drive, the level of panic about distant terrorist attacks has been less at the forefront of people’s minds.

Moreover, with the federal government, the local government, the schools and local businesses all closed down, DC residents might for once get a bit of peace and be able to chill out for a day or two.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Washington Post, 16 February 2003

(2) Chicago club ‘should have been shut’, BBC News, 18 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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