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BIOTERRORISM USES FEAR AS A WEAPON

We are afraid. We are not afraid.

There is a threat. No, there is not really a threat.

We should go about our business, carry on with vacations, visit faraway cities, stay in hotels. But we should be wary, because another terrorist attack could come any day now.

This is post-Sept. 11 America. We are caught between anxiety and apprehension, pinballing between paranoia and perspective, stuck between "It can't happen here" and "Maybe it can." We are trying to get our psychological bearings while being tossed in a typhoon, with no map or compass. Uncharted territory.

First it was terrorists on planes. Now it is anthrax in envelopes. The enemy is in the mail. First strikes delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Most of the targets are known to everyone -- prominent elected officials and media types. A national TV anchorman. The Senate majority leader. New York's governor (whether by accident or intent). A New York Times reporter. Powerful people, powerful institutions. The logic is inescapable: If they -- or, at least, those near them -- are vulnerable, then aren't we all?

Remain calm, you say to yourself. Only one person died. Only a few dozen have been exposed. Far more people die on the highway every day than breathe a deadly spore. Yet fear needs no special delivery. It infects without a postmark. Is that anthrax on the office rug, or did the cleaning lady spill Comet?

That's where we live now. In the place between prudence and paranoia. The primeval half of our brain tells us to hide in the closet. The rational half says jump on these cheap air fares.

That is the genius of bioterrorism: Kill one, frighten 100 million.

We can't let them win. That's what we keep telling ourselves, a mantra-as-lullaby to calm our nerves. We can't let them win.

"They are winning," says a friend. "The economy is shot, the airlines are going down, the stock market is in the dumpster."

They staggered Goliath with a few passenger jets and, maybe, a book of stamps. The Trade Center destruction is sucking money from our schools, our roads, our plans, our futures. Anthrax by mail frays our nerves.

We are told to keep our heads. George Pataki says forget about the spores in his Manhattan office, perhaps carried unwittingly by State Police contaminated at a nearby TV network (don't these guys wipe their feet on the mat?). Pataki is going to a ballgame, out to dinner. He says we have to carry on.

Then, in the next breath: "These are evil people we will drive back to the caves where they came from."

Hello? Does he know something we don't?

There is no proof bin Laden's legion is behind this. For all we know, it could be a twisted, pathetic loner nursing an anti-government grudge, living in a tenement flat in Trenton with a mattress on the floor, wooden crates for furniture and back issues of Better Chemistry piled in the corner. That's who could be stuffing these envelopes. Lee Harvey Osmail. Or maybe it really is a bin Laden disciple, or a Saddam Hussein groupie, at the other end of the postmark.

The enemy was out there before Sept. 11. We didn't think he could touch us. Now we know better. We fear he can poison our food, foul our water. We wonder if he can crumble our power plants and dams. We hope he can't still board our airplanes.

We think we're immune in Buffalo -- out of the way, behind the times, an afterthought to the rest of America. For once, this is the place to be. Then we realize we're a border city on a freshwater lake with a power plant up the road. There's a bull's-eye on our backs.

The Erie County Health Department is fielding 75 calls a day. It used to usually get a dozen. Inquiring minds want to know: Where do I get vaccine for anthrax and smallpox? What is this sore on my arm?

Herbert Hoover once promised Americans a chicken in every pot. What is George W. Bush's vow -- a gas mask in every closet? Cipro in every medicine cabinet? We are in the kind of war we have never before fought. Chasing a shadow. The enemy is out there. Somewhere.

"The only thing we have to fear," Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "is fear itself." He was speaking about a different war. Or was he?

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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