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Zoned Out

Front Royal Dispatch

Electric razor in hand, barber Jane Hill offers up her prescription for personal safety in these tense times: "I think all women oughta carry a cell phone and a three-fifty-seven. Loaded." Everyone else at the Royal Barber Shop here in rural Front Royal, Virginia, bursts out laughing. Smoothing the near-bald pate of the customer occupying the shop's second chair, barber Marlene Daniels (Jane's older sister) recounts in disbelief a "20/20" episode her daughter recently saw about the run on anthrax medication. "That blew my mind," she says. The others murmur in assent. It's not that the locals are making light of the fear and anxiety that increasingly reign less than 70 miles up the road in Washington. But clearly they do not share it. "Nobody around here seems really stressed," says Hill. "I haven't heard one person express anxiety, have you?" (No's all around.) Indeed the prevailing sentiment around town is perhaps best described by patron Danny Mason: "What's gonna happen is gonna happen.... I'm not losing any sleep over it."

Heading into Month Two of America's war on terror, with anthrax threats (both real and imagined) multiplying by the hour, the papers are filled with stories about anger and sadness turning to fear. We're sleeping less, hoarding bottled water and canned goods, scrutinizing each new mosquito bite for the telltale black scabs of anthrax contamination. Gas masks are flying off the shelves, and Cipro has toppled Viagra as the drug du jour. Each new day seems to bring yet another New York Times piece about some poor souls in Oregon or Kentucky who are positively paralyzed with fear. "as investigation widens across USA, so does fear," warned a recent USA Today headline. Or, as Jonathan Yardley lamented in a recent Washington Post column: "No doubt people in small towns of West Virginia and Wisconsin feel the same vague, gnawing, enervating sense of dread that afflicts those who live [in New York and Washington]."

Well, not exactly. As the folks in Front Royal make clear, not everyone is trembling as they check their mailbox. In fact, as much as we've heard from politicians and the press about the ways the terrorist attacks have united us as a nation, they've divided us as well. Empirical evidence is hard to come by, but what little there is suggests a substantial Fear Divide in the country, between those Americans (overwhelmingly located in big cities like D.C. and New York) seriously worried about their personal safety and those (located pretty much everywhere else) who are not.

PERHAPS NOWHERE is the hysteria greater than at the nation's news organizations—understandable considering the apparent anthrax attacks at American Media, ABC, and NBC. Here at The New Republic, as elsewhere in the Washington press corps, Cipro is plentiful and mail is handled gingerly, if at all. Everyone is on edge and the rumors spread faster than smallpox. Just hours after reports of anthrax at NBC, a colleague from The Washington Post e-mailed to say he had heard that TNR was evacuating its offices. (I'm always the last to know.) On the streets people visibly tense up at the sound of a police siren or low-flying helicopter.

In New York, meanwhile, stores have been ordering gas masks in bulk, and pharmacies have started limiting the amount of antibiotics one person can purchase. Nor is Cipro the only chemical security blanket in demand. According to NDCHealth, a private health care information services company, requests for anti-anxiety drugs have also shot up since September 11: New prescriptions for alprazolam (generic Xanax) are up 22 percent in New York and 12 percent in D.C. over the same period last year; new prescriptions for lorazepam (generic Ativan) rose 19 percent in New York and 16 percent in D.C.

Anti-anxiety prescriptions have seen an uptick nationwide as well but by far smaller margins. And polls have shown big-city dwellers to be decidedly edgier than their suburban and rural counterparts. In Front Royal it's not hard to figure out why. "Living out here you feel a little safer—like you have a buffer," admits Danny Mason. "I don't feel like I'm gonna get anthraxed or like my house is gonna get blown up." In fact none of the folks who drift into Jane and Marlene's shop express one whit of concern about their personal safety. "It doesn't bother me," says Norman Ricci. "I'm more interested in getting and killing him" (bin Laden, of course). And anecdotal evidence suggests that this mood is far more typical nationwide than the borderline panic evident in New York and Washington. In a decidedly unscientific poll of friends and relatives—and friends of relatives, relatives of friends, and friends of friends—from Tennessee to Texas to California to Montana to Hawaii, most people did not express anxiety about their personal safety. If asked whether they're worried about further terrorism (a common question posed by pollsters), they of course said yes. What sane person isn't? But they're mostly concerned about the state of the union in general or what all this will do to the economy or the safety of friends in New York and Washington. I couldn't find anyone who was having trouble sleeping, worrying about bacteria-laden envelopes, or altering her daily routine. ("There's a general feeling of relief," said one Montana resident apologetically. "People are saying, `We knew there was a good reason to live out here.'") As for whether anyone had purchased gas masks or anthrax-fighting antibiotics, the response I most often received was, "You're kidding, right?" One friend practicing medicine in North Carolina said a couple of older patients who winter in Florida had asked about Cipro, and she had fielded a few calls from people wanting information about "Amtrak disease," but, by and large, things were pretty normal. A Washington colleague says that although her relatives in Indiana keep a close eye on the news and say they're worried, "it's as though they're watching all of this on TV." Which, come to think of it, they are.

In Front Royal some folks aren't even doing that. "I gave away my TV a long time ago," says Hill. "But even if I still had it, I sure wouldn't sit around in front of it all day wringing my hands." The others agree vigorously. "They need to quit showing that airplane flying into the World Trade Center," says a white-haired gent in a bright blue windbreaker who asks to be identified simply as "an anonymous old man." "And every time I turn on the radio I'm listening to an interview with the family of one of the victims. `Do you miss your husband?'" he asks, in mock interview style. "`Hell no! Glad he's gone. Now where's that insurance policy?'" The entire shop cracks up. A warm breeze floats through the screen door, and as I listen to the soothing buzz of dueling razors, my thoughts drift back to the TNR office, where my colleagues are doubtless swapping rumors and comparing antibiotics prescriptions. I really should be heading back now. The editors will be yelling for my article. I need to get back and write. Maybe after lunch.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.