Changing world

Oct. 1, 2002

Remember the old days, when you could board an airplane without being pulled out of line at a security checkpoint and asked to take off your shoes, or watching as the old gentleman in front of you is patted down for concealed weapons? Remember the old days, when you could open a dog-eared, beat-up piece of mail without fear slithering through your mind that the paper might be contaminated with anthrax? Remember the old days, when a mosquito could bite your leg, and you could casually slap it away with no worries about contracting West Nile or malaria?

Last fall, American complacency violently collapsed in the rubble of the Twin Towers. We never thought that people from far away with twisted political agendas, with twisted hearts, would use our own airliners to murder thousands of our friends and neighbors.

Biological warfare, to most of us, was something out of science fiction novels or Superman comic books. We never thought that anyone would really infect mail to kill Americans with an innocent-looking, but lethal white powder that contained deadly bacilli.

Our world has changed, and not just because of evil men.

Less than five summers ago, we still figured that tropical diseases carried by mosquitoes were things we read about in history books and heard stories about from our parents and grandparents. Long-ago yellow fever epidemics in the South. Malaria wasnt that wiped out years ago? My mother contracted it as a child growing up in the 1930s in Mississippi, periodically plagued by bouts of chills and fever. Malaria was not something I had ever heard of anyone having in America in my lifetime, but now we hear about two teenagers in suburban Washington, DC, coming down with this mosquito-borne disease. And of course, West Nile virus, which made its first appearance in North America in 1999, has been in the headlines for months, sickening and killing people from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Some people believe that terrorists might be responsible for the introduction of the West Nile virus into this country.

Weve had to adjust our thinking and take into account that our borders arent impervious to evil, or even to tropical diseases that we thought couldnt affect us here in our temperate climate. That comforting sense of immunity that shielded us, both physically and culturally, has been breached.

What do we do with this unwelcome realization? We beef up our national security in all kinds of ways. We put disaster plans in place in our hospitals and laboratories. We learn more than we ever wanted to know about B. anthracis, and we spray insecticides around our communities and coat our children and the elderly with DEET when they go outside at dusk. And we go about our business, as a people a little warier, a little wiser, and a little less innocent than we were in the old days.

Celia Stevens
[email protected]

© 2002 Nelson Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.