Coping with fear
Terrorists have thrust new insecurity into American life. Americans are handling it in many different ways.
WASHINGTON AND BERKELEY, CALIF. — Seven weeks into "America's new war," the irony is unmistakable. Coming from half a world away, from the beige streets of a country most Americans have never seen, the TV images are almost familiar - grainy pictures of bombs falling in brilliant paroxysms of light, secret bunkers, midnight raids.
Yet strangely, the unfamiliar terrain in this conflict for many Americans is the ground beneath their feet. For the first time in at least a half century, America is a nation beset by deep and unyielding uncertainty - even fear - about its security.
Businessmen who once pined for the penthouse corner office are now buying parachutes designed for anxious executives. People who spent little time pondering life's meaning have found themselves turning more to prayer. Some have even brought the war effort home, stocking up on rubber gloves and gas masks.
From such responses emerge a collective portrait of the new America - a country aware that much has changed since Sept. 11, yet still struggling to redefine what it means to be safe in this altered world. As the US approaches a security situation more like that of European nations - with greater surveillance and more checkpoints - some observers suggest that America is perhaps less prepared to deal with such a new reality.
Whether it's Pearl Harbor or the Oklahoma City bombing, Americans have long responded to domestic attacks with decisive action. Now, with bioterrorist attacks mounting and little indication that the government can stop them, these persistent fears are subtly changing how the nation sees itself.
"The nature of the nation is to be doers. We want to be able to take care of something and move on," says Patricia Erickson, a sociologist at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. "All this is changing us."
From 80-point headlines and 24-hour news channels, one might think that the events of the past month and a half have turned the nation into a tribe of gas-mask recluses, sipping bottled water through sterilized straws, and opening the mail only if it's a certified letter from Aunt Beth. The reality, of course, is much more complicated.
For every person who has prepared for an apocalypse, dozens of others have done essentially nothing at all. Indeed, the way Americans are coping with their fears is neither black nor white, but millions of thoughts and actions in shades of gray, each offering a modicum of comfort in an unsettling time.
"We held a series of discussions about parishioners' feelings a few weeks ago, just to talk to them about how they were coping with it all, and people were in very different places," says the Rev. Karla Woggon, rector of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in College Park, Md. "Some were just angry. Some were fearful, but what type of fear they felt varied."
Everyone is looking for a palliative, whether over-the-counter or over the top, to deal with it:
Bible sales are up 20 to 40 percent, according to the leading publisher of the Bible worldwide. That is compared with a 10 percent increase during the Gulf War.
"People need something certain, something to rely on, and that's what the Bible is," says Cris Doornbos, executive vice president of sales at Zondervan.
Pharmacies across the country saw a 16 percent increase in new prescriptions for antidepressants during the last two weeks of September.
Surplus Center, an Army/Navy store in Berkeley, Calif., has sold more than 250 gas masks since the terrorist attacks.
Survivalist purchases, once the province of fringe groups, have become, if not mainstream, then at least more common in the past month. A Time/CNN poll showed that 31 percent of Americans have bought or are considering buying extra bottled water in case of a terrorist attack and 17 percent are considering buying a gas mask.
Some of those items are largely impractical. For example, one would need to be carrying or wearing a gas mask constantly for it to make a difference.
But in a country that has little experience in coping with the constant worries that sometimes attend the nebulous threat of terrorism, the rush to buy survivalist gear isn't necessarily surprising.
"It allows you to do something," says Curtis Hsia of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. "A lot of things we do are for ourselves. They don't really make us safer, but they make us feel better."
The strength of this desire is clear in the success of Executivechute, a company that makes small emergency parachutes that can be used to jump out of skyscrapers. John Rivers founded the company immediately following the attacks and has sold hundreds of chutes. Many businesses, he says, were considering moving before they heard of Executivechute, but now are deciding to stay.
"We're still getting an awful lot of interest. It hasn't really slowed," he says. "People tell me they feel so much better knowing that something like this is out there."
Throughout the past century, other nations have faced and faced down national threats and national fears. Britain survived the Blitz and developed a national heroine, Mrs. Miniver, whose grit was measured by her ability to go on with daily life. France was overrun by Germany but regained its independence. Poland survived through 50 years of occupation.
But the United States, the brash nation that has long based its identity on standing alone, has never been tested like this, and for many people, it's taking time and effort to adjust.
"We all handle stress differently, and some handle it with denial - but less so this time," says Capt. Ronald Smith, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "This seems to have hit many more people."
Although he hasn't seen an increase in the number of weekly appointments, Captain Smith says he has noticed sessions with clients are "more fruitful" than they were before Sept. 11. Patients have moved beyond the status quo and are more willing to tackle their problems head on, he says, adding: "There is a definite and noticeable change."
At the Pastoral Counseling and Consultation Center of Greater Washington, however, psychotherapist David Williams says his phone has begun ringing more often, particularly lately as the "fallout" of the attacks is hitting home. He has already made the rounds talking to parishes around the city, including Ms. Woggon's St. Andrew's church. Weeks of thinking about terrorism have led some people to do dramatic things.
"One woman I spoke with, a mother, her immediate reaction was to grab her kids and drive 400 miles to the Midwest," says Mr. Williams. "She knew it probably was more dangerous to be on the road for 10 hours driving tired, but she couldn't help herself. She actually did it."
She and others, he says, have found turning to faith and church helps in two ways. First, it provides a community for people to be a part of. Second, it helps people connect with what is meaningful in life.
"It stops people from thinking about the physical world and gets them thinking about something with true meaning," he says. "Faith lets people see the things that matter really haven't changed."
Cheryl Hoffman, a St. Andrews parishioner, says she has long relied on her faith, plus yoga and meditation, to get her through life. Since Sept. 11, she has relied on those things more. "It made me ask whether I really do believe what I think I believe," she says. "I have found out I do, and that is very comforting."
Yet not everyone has found solace in a new routine or piece of survival gear. For most Americans, the new normal has been as close to the old normal as possible, filled with tailgates and football games.
Standing in the back of his white Chevy pickup, Mike Henning is smiling as he tends to the beef tenderloins on his grill. Mr. Henning is one of thousands in the giant parking lot of FedEx Field, a sea of sport-utility vehicles and maroon-and-gold-clad football fans who have come to see the hometown Washington Redskins.
All things considered, just deciding to attend the game might be considered by some an act of everyday heroism. In the days before Sept. 11, 80,000 people in one confined space just outside of Washington might have been called a party. Since then, such gatherings have gained the unfortunate appellation "target."
But Henning doesn't see it that way. "Worried? No. I'm just hoping we get a win," he says.
Call it denial or being grounded, his feelings are echoed down the line of cars as fans toss footballs or sit talking under makeshift tents. Walking through the lot, breathing in air tinged with the smell of lighter-fluid-doused charcoal, nothing feels very different than it did before the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked. Conversations are about work or this year's beleaguered Skins squad. "At least the US can mount an offense," one fan jokes.
For Henning, the memories of Sept. 11 are particularly strong. He works in Arlington, Va., at the USA Today building, not far from the Pentagon. When Flight 77 hit, his windows rattled, and he went outside to get a better view.
Still, he feels relatively unaffected. After the tragedy, he continues to ride the Metro, Washington's subway system. He says it's probably safer than using the area's highways, "considering the way people drive around here."
As the nation's media have focused on fear, it is this larger perspective that has been largely lost. Metro's weekday ridership is essentially unchanged after the Sept. 11 tragedy, as is the ridership of San Francisco's BART system. Even in New York, where stations were closed and trains were rerouted, subway ridership is back where it was before the terrorist attacks.
Polls about fear also tend to downplay how many Americans seem unshaken. Immediately after the attacks, a Gallup poll showed 58 percent of Americans feared being the victim of a terrorist. But that still meant that after the most deadly terrorist attack in the history of the US, more than 40 percent of Americans were largely unafraid.
Today, even amid the anthrax attacks, that number is down precipitously - only 34 percent of Americans are very or somewhat worried that they or a family member will be exposed to anthrax, Gallup reports.
Many of those who say they are unafraid do not talk or act like people in denial, and there is reason to believe that the US - like the nations that faced such challenges before it - will eventually adjust. In some ways, Americans may be better for it.
"I believe this will be a more mentally healthy culture than it was before Sept. 11," says Dr. Smith of the National Naval Medical Center. "We lost some freedoms that day. We lost the freedom of fear of dying, and the freedom of fear of our own mortality. But those aren't necessarily bad things. People are more aware of their lives now."
Ms. Hoffman, the St. Andrews parishioner, says her thoughts have been turning to a scene from a movie in which a group of people are crossing a rickety bridge. One character says she fears the bridge will collapse. Another character tells her they can't control whether they will live or die; they can only control whether they will be afraid if and when it collapses.
"I think of that and I guess my answer is, I pick unafraid," Hoffman says.
Religion is 'very important' to 65 percent of Americans, the highest number in 36 years, according to Gallup.
31 percent of Americans have or are considering buying extra bottled water to prepare for a terrorist attack, a Time/CNN poll shows.
New prescriptions for antidepressants such as Prozac increased 16 percent in the last two weeks of September.
17 percent of Americans are considering buying a gas mask, a Time/CNN poll shows.
People living in the East feel more worried than people in the rest of America. A Gallup polls shows 20 percent of Easterners are 'very worried,' compared with 15 percent of Southerners and Midwesterners and only 6 percent of Westerners.
Ridership on the subways in San Fransisco, Washington, and New York is at pre-Sept. 11 levels.
Only 34 percent of Americans are very or somewhat worried that they will be exposed to anthrax, Gallup reports.
Sales of the Bible are up 20 percent to 40 percent , according to a leading Bible publisher.