The other night my son went to bed with a touch of fever. It was nothing much, but I went and got the Tylenol and then just stared at it. The bottle had been in the house for some time and it could not have been from the lethal lot number, but I decided not to use it anyway. He settled for children's aspirin. That way, we both slept well.
At the moment, seven person are dead because one or more persons laced Tylenol with cyanide. For more than a week now, this tragedy has been the biggest running story in the United States. It has pushed the White House, Lebanon, the Soviet Union and even Marvin Mitchelson off the front pages, turning America into a version of small town. Why?
The reasons are not all that mysterious. At root, the Tylenol story is about the health of our families and if there is something more important than that, I, for one, can not think of it. But it is also just another example of terrorism, that awful combination of caprice and evil that seems to be the sickness of our times.
In due course, the Tylenol story will slip off the front page, but it is safe to say that nothing will be quite the same. Steps will be taken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Bottles of over-the-counter drugs will be sealed or locked away and once again we will have to pay with money and inconvenience for the fact that we ultimately rely on the good will of others.
The Tylenol tragedy is just part of a trend. I grew up in a house that had a hook and eye on the back door. It was security enough for those days, but now I live in a house that has locks and gadgets galore. Security and alarm systems are now big business and it is routine for house guests to be provided a key and a towel -- and the combination for the security system. People live behind gates and barred windows and keep dogs not as pets, but as four-legged bouncers.
All of this is a relatively recent development. So, too, are the security systems encountered at airports. Not too long ago you could plan on arriving at the airport just before your flight. No more. Now you have to be frisked and your baggage X-rayed. In some foreign countries, your bags are opened, taken from you and then not placed on the plane until you claim them just before boarding. All this is done to prevent hijackings and bombings -- and even then sometimes it does not work.
In airports, lockers have been removed. Bombs can be hidden in them. In public buildings, visitors have to check in with guards in the lobby, state their purpose and the person they are visiting and then get permission to enter. It was not too long ago that this sort of security was a rarity and public buildings were really public. Now the term is almost without meaning and even newspaper buildings, traditionally hospitable to the aggrieved, the cranky and the just plain nuts, have guards to screen the public. We are, to an extent, afraid of our own constituency.
Successive assassinations and assassination attempts have affected our political life. Politicians travel behind phalanxes of body guards. The president of the United States is less accessible than he used to be. He goes out less often, almost never plunges into crowds, shakes fewer hands and has his travel schedule dictated by the possibility that one person -- either for politics or fame -- might try to take his life.
I leave it to economists to tell us how much this has cost us in money and I leave it to psychologists to say what the psychic costs have been. Certainly, security is expensive and just as certainly the constant reminder of terrorism -- whether it is called street crime or hijackings or tampering with drugs -- has to take its psychic toll. In Argentina, sustained terrorism turned that country into one of the world's most brutal and oppressive nations. In Israel, terrorism is a controlling factor in both domestic and foreign affairs. Anywhere, it corrodes the concept of community.
I suppose that condemning terrorism is as useful as howling at the moon. And I know that this Tylenol problem will be handled, probably just by sealing the bottle. But that does not change the fact that some madman in the Chicago area managed to make my son and me a bit more fearful -- not just of Tylenol, but of our fellow man. No seal on a bottle can make up for that