The fine line between being cautious and becoming totally paranoid has all but disappeared for many Americans. How can we go about our daily lives, as the president rightly instructs us, when every hour seems to bring new stories of yet another possible exposure to anthrax or a government warning that further attacks on the United States or American interests abroad may be imminent? Worst of all, with 24-hour cable television, it is possible to spend virtually all our waking hours being bombarded with "breaking news," much of which later turns out not to be true, or at least not quite what it seemed at first.
Is watching this stuff hour after hour any different than watching game shows or soap operas all day long? Sure, we like to tell ourselves it's more important, more intellectually stimulating, but that's not why we watch it. Watching non-stop news becomes a hard-to-break habit, or worse, a neurotic obsession.
It's as if we can ward off evil or misfortune if we keep ourselves informed of every tidbit of information available. The experts who guide us through the difference between cutaneous and inhaled bacillus anthracis or give us the bomb damage assessment from Kabul become our shamans. We look to them for answers in a suddenly confusing and frightening world.
And the problem isn't just confined to people like me who work at home. I know office workers who spend half their day checking the Internet for the latest developments, and others who keep the office radio or TV on all day, too. Still others spend more time on the telephone checking on loved ones or getting the latest rumors from co-workers.
As bad as the TV news addiction can be, the rumor-mongering that's gone on for the last few weeks is worse. Is there anyone left in America who hasn't encountered a friend who claims that "a friend of a friend, who just happened to be dating a Muslim, received a warning not to fly on Sept. 11 or visit a shopping mall on Halloween"? This latest urban legend has no basis in truth, but it hasn't stopped people from spreading it far and wide. Some people just can't resist wanting to seem part of the story.
I've decided the only way to keep from going off the deep end is to turn off the TV. Since Sept. 11, I had taken to turning on the TV the moment I woke up and leaving it on in the kitchen all day until I went to bed at night. That way I could get my news briefing every time I walk in to pour myself a fresh cup of coffee or get a snack. If I heard the president's voice, or Donald Rumsfeld's or Colin Powell's, I would rush in to see the latest news. Of course that meant I wasn't getting much else done, including work on a book, a memoir, due out next year. It just isn't possible to concentrate on something as demanding as writing a book when you're listening to the background noise about war and pestilence.
For now, anyway, the TV in my house is off, except for an hour or so as I cook dinner. I'll survive, probably better than when I was being lured by the siren call of a Pentagon briefing or a some correspondent standing outside some office building where another anthrax case has been discovered. After all, how much do any of us really need to know about what's going on in the world, minute by minute? If something really big happens like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we'll know about it soon enough.
If the president wants to address the nation, I'll listen. But I'd just as soon not see the attorney general popping up every few minutes, especially if he has nothing more useful to tell the nation than "Beware!"