Anthrax sample

Last Wednesday wasn’t the first time SN&R was hit with this hoax

In the mail was a package with a CD and smaller packet labeled “Anthrax sample.” I’d opened a similar package sent to SN&R from local hoax master Marc Keyser more than a year ago which had an aerosol container, also labeled “anthrax.” The first time it happened, our offices were evacuated for better than an hour while a parade of police, Homeland Security, FBI, fire and a hazmat team checked things out.

This time, fairly certain the packet was sugar, I barely left my desk. The police had already been on a half-dozen similar calls last Wednesday (including to KCRA and The Sacramento Bee), so officers didn’t think it necessary to sound a big alarm. But designated mail openers at some other offices weren’t so lucky. At Rep. George Radanovich’s office in Fresno, a couple of workers were evacuated to a hospital.

Contributing to my calm was the knowledge of how unlikely it was that anyone could get their hands on weaponized anthrax, let alone decide to waste it on a low-level, mail-opening SN&R writer-slash-administrative assistant. Nonetheless, as a repeat victim of this particular fear-raising hoax, I can’t help but wish Keyser faced some serious consequences for his actions. You see, the problem is bigger than a guy with a screwball idea about promoting his book.

The problem is how we react to fear.

Somehow, we don’t seem able to do the most rudimentary risk assessment. Rather than worrying about things that really will kill us—lack of access to health care and unsafe food and medicine—we fuss about terrorists with anthrax. Sure, it’s possible. But it’s not likely, and there are far more likely problems that need addressing.

Nonetheless, Keyser’s anthrax hoax is—or should be—a crime, because he scared the holy heck out of me and the rest of my SN&R colleagues the first time he did it. I don’t like being deliberately frightened by someone who wants to manipulate me, whether it’s Keyser trying to scare SN&R into publishing sections of his book or a government’s vision that we need to surrender civil liberties so it can fight a war on “terror.”

My answer, in both cases, is no. I don’t scare that easily.

Terrorism is a crime and it should be treated as such: investigate, arrest, prosecute and imprison criminals and criminal hoaxers alike. But too often, we overreact to our fears and give criminals more legitimacy than they deserve. A simple, restrained response is best, since it deprives him of the fearful attention he seeks.

And, taken further, it’s a bad idea to let our fear of terrorists scare us into legitimizing such criminals by declaring “war” on them and bombing everything in sight while suspending our own civil rights. But that’s exactly what we’ve done, as a nation, in deciding to elevate criminal terrorists to the status of sovereign nations by making war on them.

Living in fear should be off the table. A few reasonable precautions and a bit of common sense about what the real risks are will go a long way toward depriving terrorists of all stripes of their No. 1 weapon—our fear.