There are few things as universal as the mail. And that's why we worry now when the postman rings. Should we?
The enemy is no longer just bearded men in robes talking tough from hidden caves or suicidal fanatics grabbing our airplanes. Now, the enemy may be anyone who can lick a stamp and seal an envelope. Just over a dozen Americans have contracted anthrax-by-mail, and only three have died, but a current of fear and apprehension is now surging through the nation.
The Bush administration, which had sought to gain the initiative by dropping bombs on and inserting ground troops into Afghanistan, could report little payoff and was instead forced not only to play defense but to play on its home court: The frontline soldiers in the war on terrorism were supposed to be men in cammies, well armed, well trained, and well protected. Instead, the battlefield is turning out to be America's postal facilities, where the workers are girded in nothing more than blue slacks, short-sleeve shirts, and sensible shoes.
With anthrax spores showing up in mail facilities around Washington, D.C., and New York, the Postal Service ordered anthrax testing at 200 mail centers along the East Coast and random checks around the country. Postal workers in New York demanded the closing of an anthrax-contaminated sorting center and the shutdown of other postal installations. "If it's possible to close down Congress and test there for bacteria," said William Smith, a union local president in New York City, where anthrax was found on four machines at a major sorting center, "they should close down this building, too."
Baffled. The White House response was, at first, halting and confused. "It's something that, obviously, we're not used to in America," President Bush said at the weekend. Public-health authorities seem baffled that anthrax could escape from a sealed envelope and were slow to realize that modern, high-speed postal equipment might force the spores from the letters into the air, endangering postal workers. But it's not as if they didn't have fair warning. For the past three years, abortion clinics have been receiving letters containing powdery substances that the senders claimed to be anthrax. None actually were, but evidently nobody prepared for the day when the mails would be used to send the real thing. The number of people infected remains tiny, but the Washington Post raised the question as to whether "the U.S. mail stream as a whole at some point might need to be deemed potentially deadly."
Better hope not. That stream is a veritable Mississippi. The Postal Service delivers about 680 million pieces of mail each day, and about 7 million Americans visit a post office daily. The Postal Service is scrambling now to come up with ways to irradiate and sanitize the mail, but the process is both expensive and difficult to adapt to the huge volume the post office handles. Anthrax doesn't have to be deadly, of course. Caught in time, it can be cured by antibiotics like Cipro, which many Americans are now popping as if they were Pez, a strategy they might want to rethink in light of a Wall Street Journal story that warns that drugs like Cipro "can cause a range of bizarre side effects from psychological problems and seizures to ruptured Achilles tendons." As if Americans didn't have psychological problems enough already: We are being warned, for instance, to watch out for the "flulike symptoms" of anthrax just as we head into the season for the flu, a disease that could kill far more Americans--about 20,000 this year--than anthrax might.