Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

By Rod Bastanmehr

City on a Hill Press  Editor

My mother once went through a phase of opening envelopes with gloves. It wasn’t as much a fashion statement as it was a precaution. You see, in the long-ago days of 2001, during the height of the post-9/11 bubble, which some may argue has yet to pop, the media alternated front-page stories between three main topics. They were the search for Osama Bin Laden (location still pending), the looming war with Iraq (end date still pending), and what has since come to be known as the 2001 anthrax attacks (source of origin still pending).

In fact, there isn’t too much we know now regarding any of those three events that we didn’t know back then. Bin Laden may or may not be dead, Iraq may or may not have been involved in the attacks, and anthrax may or may not have been as large a threat as we thought.

But it didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now. Even when the anthrax “epidemic” — a term apparently utilized any time a given death toll exceeds zero — kicked into high gear, the young seventh-grader in me remained skeptical as to what the risk really was.

Turns out, no one really knew. But that didn’t stop parents, teachers, newscasters, lunch ladies, Ms. Johansson — my seventh-grade art teacher who had no background in science other than the occasional biology conversation she probably overheard in the teacher’s lounge — from preaching to anyone within earshot that to ignore the looming threat of anthrax was foolish beyond belief. After all, five whole people had died.

“They hate us for our postage,” I would often think to myself in those days.

In 2003, at the height of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, UC Berkeley, arguably the pinnacle of liberal education, temporarily banned Asian students from visiting the campus in hopes of preventing further contamination.

It would be nice to think that we’ve evolved far past those silly overreactions that were all the rage during the early stages of the new millennium. Precious few may have actually known what the threat of Y2K was, but that didn’t stop our local Safeway from selling out of water jugs.

Somehow, we haven’t evolved. Our fill-in-the-phobia culture has remained exactly the same, and our fears have yet to gain any more legitimacy. My mom has traded her bevy of gloves and fear of envelopes for a disdain toward crowded areas and an irrational hatred for pigs in light of the swine flu, now dubbed the H1N1 virus for politcal correctness’ sake .

And if the media is any indication, my mother doesn’t seem to be alone in her reaction. The recent swine flu scare has taken over public consciousness, with everyone living in fear about who the next victim might be. But the first, a 33-year-old schoolteacher from Texas, has been the only fatally infected U.S. resident. A 2-year-old toddler with prior underlying health issues, traveling from Mexico City to Nevada, is still the only other reported death.

As a society, we have become desperate to categorize ourselves as victims of a crisis. Cultural phobias have morphed into the latest have-to-have and we seem to have reached a point where the most troubling of news serves as a proverbial safety blanket, a “we’re all in this together” cry that allows us to finally feel like members of a unified nation.

Perhaps it’s oddly reassuring to know that in a time when financial deterioration and environmental collapse are the result of our own arrogance and ignorance, there are still some epidemics we weren’t the catalyst for.

But this is more than just overzealous media thrilled at the prospect of a story. Vice President Joe Biden himself stated that he suggests his family avoid any public or confined space — a suggestion that many would deem rash in the throes of an economy that thrives on public transportation and hospitality services to find its footing again.

Yet, even after Biden publicly corrected his statement — his suggestion was to only be applied if his family was actually carrying swine flu, he clarified — we still didn’t fully buy it. Why? Because we like being scared. We enjoy the prospect of projecting our cultural neurosis on some greater social ill, to ignore the problem at large by simply creating a problem that is larger.

As Mexico feels the full force of a global pandemic, its economic infrastructure is quietly crawling on its last legs. In a matter of months, when the recession truly hits its unavoidable peak, Mexico will reach a worse low than America’s own Great Depression, marking the largest financial collapse in all the Latin or Central American countries.

And the pigs! My God, the pigs!

During the Cold War, when every moment brought us closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation, the most terrifying idea of all was the inability to picture an enemy, the birth of ideological warfare that left no clear discernable line between the good and the bad.

Today, we crave the visage of fear more than ever. So we project it on our neighbors, our friends, our country, ourselves. We love the idea of fear because it protects us from the ambiguous, from the unidentifiable. We love being scared because it gives us something to blame and serves as something to distract.

Maybe fear is all about what’s in fashion, what defines us at a given time. And if that’s the case, then reusing SARS protective masks against swine flu is so 2003.