Yesterday's Fears Fade As We Adapt To Tomorrow's

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

We move on.

Only a year after planes exploded into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, followed by the first major bioterrorist incident in American history, featuring anthrax, the Beltway snipers convulsed the region. People worried less about opening their mail and more about crouching behind their cars while filling their gas tanks.

Only weeks after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, an American Airlines plane taking off from New York's Kennedy Airport crashed into a residential neighborhood of Queens. When it turned out to be "only" an accident, then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani responded with palpable relief to the death of 260 on board and five on the ground, saying, "It could have been far worse."

Since then we have faced the possibility of a SARS epidemic that could have killed millions and a global avian flu pandemic that could do worse, not to mention the loss of much of an American city, New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now Iran test-fires missiles while the world confronts the possibility of it creating an atomic bomb and having the will to use it.

This raises questions about how we adapt to risk and terror, both short term and long. How did we adapt back then? And how have we adapted now, seven years later, as anthrax memories surface with the suicide of an Army scientist being investigated by the FBI for the deaths?

It may be hard to remember the anxiety the anthrax attacks caused in 2001 and 2002. The run on supplies of Cipro, the antibiotic treatment for anthrax. The rush to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal windows. The latex gloves in mail rooms under negative pressure. The little survival packs some corporations gave their employees. The debate over which gas mask you needed.

Our estimates of the probability of risk drop rapidly, says Baruch Fischhoff, the Carnegie Mellon psychologist who is a former president of the Society for Risk Analysis and the author of "Acceptable Risk."

At the peak of the crisis, he asked some 900 respondents what they thought the probability was of them taking antibiotics for anthrax in the next year. Five percent thought they would. He then went back to them a year later to test their memory. Only 1 percent thought they had once said that they would be taking antibiotics for anthrax. And none thought that their original response had been realistic.

Originally, "people were legitimately anxious. They really didn't know what the scope of the problem was," Fischhoff says. "They responded the way they usually do -- responsibly, bravely and somewhat nervously.

"A year later, the problem looked officially small. They couldn't remember how worried they were a year earlier. They had learned so much, they couldn't remember how it looked different."

Well, some of them. In 2005, Stephen Flynn, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Washington Post's Sally Quinn: "The next attack is more likely to be catastrophic." He believed dirty bombs and assaults on chemical facilities near large population centers and on the food supply would be the next likely strikes by terrorists steadily gaining strength since 9/11.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company