A house down the block from mine went up for sale last weekend, and you could barely find a parking space for all the folks who were desperate to live less than four miles from the White House. No one seemed to care that our pretty town is Ground Zero for evildoers who would poison us.
We're supposed to be buying up rolls of duct tape and plastic sheeting, not plunking down preposterous sums of money for prime terrorist targets. But that doesn't deter Washington home seekers. Prices keep soaring; home sellers have gotten so cocky that their ads note that they'll be fielding their many offers -- don't even think about inspecting the property -- just hours after the place goes on the market.
Can you spell "cognitive dissonance"? Or is this simply the finest of survival strategies -- denial?
The alternative is the new government policy of Duct and Cover. Someday, our children will find amusement in watching old Internet files of us taping up doorways.
At lunchtime, I strapped on the biggest, scariest gas mask in our newsroom stash, and I waded into the pedestrian bath of K Street NW to see how panicky Washingtonians might be.
I am pleased to report that people were completely unfazed. While I choked for air inside my mask -- which helpfully comes with four pages of instructions written entirely in Hebrew -- passersby just stared. A few remarked to friends, "He's wearing a gas mask." Not a single person asked whether there had been an Event. We have faced far greater challenges -- the sniper, the (pick one) Reagan/Clinton years, the District's ruthless meter maids -- and we're just not buying the idea that terrorism is a greater threat than, say, a Beltway collision.
Still, rational people are swooping into Home Depot in search of duct tape. For many years, radio bard Garrison Keillor has poked fun at American can-doism by airing ads for the American Duct Tape Council, a fictitious trade group that evangelizes on behalf of a product that fixes satellites, violins and souls. Keillor's tagline for his spoof spots: "Duct Tape: It's almost all you need sometimes." How about for protecting yourself from bio-warfare agents?
Duct tape has its roots in war -- 3M researchers developed it for the military, which wanted a waterproof adhesive that could be ripped by hand but was strong enough to repair Jeeps.
But when I asked whether duct tape could, as the government suggests, save us from death by biological agent, I got a bunch of maybes. The Pressure Sensitive Tape Council -- the real trade group -- sent me to Tyco Adhesives, the nation's biggest duct tape maker. Tyco's marketing manager, Brian McBride, told me that the tape is great at sealing off water and air but whether it could stop bio or chemical agents "depends on the size of the molecules."
In any event, we agreed that duct tape is marvelous stuff. He said duct tape is "a cultural, historical phenomenon that's very American. In Europe, they prefer carton-sealing and masking tape. Americans like the straight tear, the aggressive adhesive." I love an aggressive adhesive.
Speaking of the government and media campaign to foment panic, my son posed this question: "Daddy, why do they keep that sign on TV that says, 'Terror Alert HIGH'?"
I replied: "To make us so nervous that we'll come back to their channel to see what's happened, so they can make more money."
That seemed to calm him, greed being a far more palatable human shortcoming than murderous hate.
People who live around here have gotten savvy about finding coping mechanisms of late. The more the forces of darkness throw at us -- hijackings, snipers, anthrax, smallpox, dirty bombs -- the deeper we burrow into our own tabloid netherworld -- Joe Millionaire, Wacko Jacko, the furs and Tiffany tea sets of Washington's funky teachers union.
And now unthinkable terrors and mere craziness converge in a roll of duct tape, which is selling like toilet paper on the eve of a snowstorm. Therapeutic shopping is a grand old American tradition. But toward what end? So you can suffocate before the nerve agent takes effect?
I prefer the strategy of those who line up to buy houses in the Death Zone: Live free or die.
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