Anthrax as AIDS


“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Everyone has been citing that noble old nostrum—and it’s true where anthrax is concerned. One person has died, several more deaths are suspicious, and perhaps 40 people have tested positive. Yet the country is reacting as if the earth has opened up and swallowed the Yankees. The media are doing their usual number—stoking fear with nonstop coverage while criticizing people for being afraid—and the pundit posture of choice is to narrow the eyes like a sailor in a Camels ad and go into Greatest Generation mode. In the new culture of war without end, anxiety is the mark of a sissy. If you’re scared, you better keep it to yourself. Yet like most dirty secrets, anthrax angst should not be dismissed.

AIDS taught us that the right response to panic is to bring people to their senses by unpacking the metaphors of illness and deconstructing magic thinking. But the current outbreak of anxiety is not just a symbol of some deeper unrecognized terror. It’s also an appropriate response to an actual threat. After all, anthrax is not the only organism that can serve as an agent of bioterror. If you’ve been following Nightline, one of the few news shows to confront the danger head on, you’ve heard that the ideal strategy is to spread a variety of germs so that no particular therapy can suffice. It may be very hard to carry that off, but in an intricately congested place like New York, it’s a real possibility. This is why so many people are worried. The specter that haunts us now is not anthrax but genocide.

Why do I focus on the worst-case scenario? Not just because, like many journalists, I’m prone to apocalyptic thinking, or because I won’t abide by psychic censorship. I’m caught up in this situation because it resonates with something I’ve seen before. I need to acknowledge that sense of déjà vu, if only to admit that it disposes me to grim conclusions about the current threat. So call me hysterical—and I hope you’re right. But every time I urge a complacent colleague to be careful when opening mail, I realize that the reason I’m hyper-vigilant is the memory of AIDS.

I lost perhaps 20 close friends and several former lovers to HIV (by no means a high toll for a gay man of my generation in New York). I realize what a luxury it is to speak of this disease in the past tense. I don’t live in a country where AIDS is the leading cause of death. I’m not tethered to the epidemic by a harrowing regimen of pills. But neither am I free of its grip on my imagination. I retain the imprint of AIDS anxiety, and the knowledge that what’s most terrifying about a crisis is not what you know but what you don’t.

During those early years, when images beyond my worst imaginings unfolded before my eyes—and there seemed to be no hope for the infected—fear seeped out of the inner reservoir where it makes a permanent home and spread throughout my consciousness. I was hardly the only member of what the caring profession calls “the worried well.” All across the city and eventually the world, even people at negligible risk were terrified.

As the death toll climbed, the worst instincts emerged, mostly because the infected belonged to our most notorious pariah groups. The fear of pollution that always surrounds the stigmatized led to all sorts of casual brutality. Colleagues shrank from shaking my hand. A friend refused to eat bread that I had touched. A stranger in the subway pointed to me and started screaming, “He has AIDS!” And then there were the rubber gloves. The sight of them on mail carriers today is like some tainted madeleine, bringing back the days when gloves were used for handling people who happened to be gay.

I was enraged by this behavior, but I also understood it. Hadn’t I come home after meeting someone with KS lesions on his face and washed my hands with alcohol? Wasn’t I obsessively examining my body for blemishes and endlessly palpating my glands? Didn’t I find myself shrinking from a kiss?

I had to deal with these reactions because I lived at the epicenter of the epidemic. There was no way out, and it was useless—not to mention wrong—to behave this way. My life and my ability to love depended on reconciling fear with reason. It was a close call, but as reliable information replaced supposition I was slowly able to right myself. I hate all attempts to draw moral lessons from illness. I’m not a better person for having survived AIDS. But I can attest to the fact that fear, when fully expressed, can be a source of safety and strength.

Not that the lessons of the HIV epidemic are entirely applicable to the present danger. There are crucial differences, not the least of which is that this time we really are all at risk. There’s no question of which victims are “innocent” and which are not. That means the government will be much quicker to respond if the worst occurs. It won’t take years for the president to utter the name of the infectious agent, as it did with AIDS. And any terrorist attack is likely to be acute but finite; unlike HIV, it will pass.

But there are also hellish possibilities that a sexually transmitted agent doesn’t pose: hospitals overwhelmed, social life extinguished, the city sealed. For these reasons, anthrax anxiety seems more rational than the AIDS panic was. Yet it is much harder to articulate, if only because it serves no larger social agenda. On the contrary, fear is deemed unpatriotic now. “WIMPS” is what the Post called the House of Representatives for closing down last week. No one who wanted to round up people with AIDS ever got called a coward. No one was urging us then to get on with our lives.

War changes the metaphors, of course. But in one key respect the fear of anthrax and AIDS are the same. It’s not the facts that scare us but the shock to our schema of reality. Something is happening that was not supposed to occur, something we can’t see or touch. In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus calls this “death from a clear blue sky.” It matters less that an enemy sows the seeds of disease than that the logic of control has been breached. This is a primal source of human terror, which is why Camus considered epidemics existential events. They force us to confront the contingency of life and the fragility of social formations. In the end, all we can do is what we must, in the hope that it will be enough.

You don’t prepare for that awful prospect by staying calm and repressing feelings that might intrude on normalcy. You begin by respecting anxiety. There’s nothing shameful about fear in the face of danger; it’s something to be governed but heeded. So dare to imagine the unthinkable. Demand that the government make a plan that maximizes survival. Know that terror is the root of courage (since people who have no reason to fear also have no need to be brave). And believe that when the danger passes, for better or worse you will forget.

That’s how I’ve come to terms with AIDS. My own dirty secret is that I don’t think about the epidemic very much—until something happens that triggers my memory of death from a clear blue sky.