washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Mary McGrory
Mary McGrory

Panic City, U.S.A.

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, February 16, 2003; Page B07

Dr. Marie Schum-Brady, a general practitioner in Arlington, reports a surge in patient requests for tranquilizers and other medications that will suppress their anxieties. To some she gives pills; for most she prescribes prayer.

"I tell them the war hasn't actually started and a higher power than George Bush, and Saddam Hussein, is watching over them. I tell them we don't need to fall prey to our government's fear-test. We should pray; it's the greatest power we have."

_____More McGrory_____
'The Saddest Loss' (The Washington Post, Apr 23, 2004)
Blossoms and Bombs (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2003)
Tony Blair in the Doghouse (The Washington Post, Mar 13, 2003)
About Mary McGrory

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

Washington's apprehension is always with it. It has little to do with Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Worrying about what's in store is the leading indoor sport. Mostly, in this mean, endless February, it's about snow. What would be counted as a flurry in hardier climes such as Boston and Buffalo induces a blizzard of fear. Schools close right and left, dinners and meetings are canceled, and the capital of the Western world huddles around its television sets watching nonstop weather advisories.

Washington's chronic worries arise from a lot of other things, too. Will 911 answer when you call? Some people feel awful because there will be a war; some are stressed out because there will not be a war. Some people brood that their names will be in the paper, others that they will not. Some fret that the rain will turn to snow. Some brood over whether it is unpatriotic to wonder if we have to be scared to death by our government periodically.

Last week's Code Orange alert coincided with a four-inch snowfall, the resurfacing of Osama bin Laden and instructions from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge about how to get out of town if we are attacked.

Much has been made of the rush to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to repel germ and chemical assaults. Less has been said about the unpatriotic run on Evian. Tom Ridge told us to stock up on bottled water, and frantic householders dashed to their grocery stores and, with no thought at all of the policy implications, reached for the Evian, a product of France, which they should be trying to punish for its reprehensible efforts to stop a war with Iraq.

On Capitol Hill, among House Republicans, there was talk of affixing an orange alert label on French wines, which a spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said use bovine blood as a clarifier.

George W. Bush struts past a warship to whip up martial fervor for attacking Iraq, but citizens of the capital of the free world are nervously packing "go bags" to flee to God knows where when the barbarian hordes descend on us. They are putting in flashlights, peanut butter and maps. Sally Quinn, the famous hostess and connoisseur of civil defense measures, has suggested another item, a collapsible kayak, a form of conveyance that would suit the fitness crowd but would be of limited use to the old or the young. Imagine heading down to the river with the radio, flashlight, peanut butter, documents, extra prescription drugs and the two pairs of glasses you have been urged to include and the vanity plates you have been advised to remove from your car.

Directions on destination are vague at the moment. All we know is that those of us located north of Pennsylvania, the president's avenue, must, when the alarm sounds, head north, while those south of Pennsylvania must go south. Some people are urged to stay put, which may be my personal choice, as I work in a very secure building. You must show your pass to a spindle gate in the parking garage. It gives you a good whack on the back if you don't step lively enough. At informal seminars occurring whenever two people get together in Panic City, fierce arguments break out about whether it is better to flee on foot or by car. One of the most admired contributions to a discussion I was involved in was from a woman who said that all she was going to do was fill her car with gas and her pockets with cash.

As one who every day drives down Connecticut Avenue, with its little traffic jams just around every corner, I have my doubts about motoring away from evil.

Much psychological damage is being inflicted on civil servants. They are being hauled into meetings and being labeled "essential" or "nonessential." Either choice carries pain. Be told you're nonessential and not part of the plan to save the republic and you're diminished. But be called "essential" and you're big stuff but doomed to go down with the ship.

The biggest surprise in the morning paper came from Virginia, where some principals are planning to lock down the schools when trouble comes. Parents will not be allowed to pick up their children. Parents may rebel. They may arm themselves and head for the principal's office to demand their children at gunpoint. Then we wouldn't have to go to Iraq for a war. We'd have one right here.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company