Here is the surest way for government officials to stoke nationwide fear about bioterrorism in this country: Treat the American public like children.
Public-health bureaucrats have grown smugly accustomed to telling us what we should think -- instead of what we should know. The federal administrators of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are especially skilled at paternalistic propagandizing. They've had plenty of practice over the last two decades, from hectoring Americans about the evils of gun ownership, to demonizing the tobacco industry, to spreading the graphic gospel of sex education and condom distribution in public schools against the will of parents.
In wartime, these health officials remain committed to the Nanny State philosophy. Take last week's statements by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who oversees the CDC, when news broke about the Florida man who had contracted the first case of inhalation anthrax in 25 years.
Secretary Thompson appeared at a White House briefing last Thursday and described the case as "isolated" six times. He mentioned that the anthrax victim, tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens, was an "outdoorsman" and "drank water out of a stream when he was traveling through North Carolina." Thompson stated emphatically that "there is no evidence of terrorism."
He did not mention that Stevens lived about a mile from an air strip where terrorist hijacker Mohammed Atta rented planes or that several of Atta's fellow hijackers also visited and asked questions at a crop-dusting business in Belle Glade, Fla., 40 miles from Stevens' home in Lantana.
Thompson brought along an HHS doctor, Scott Lillibridge, to pooh-pooh the possibility of nefarious causes for Stevens' infection. "Sporadic cases may occur from contact with wool, animal products, hides, that sort of thing," Dr. Lillibridge said. "These are sporadic, episodic things that happen from time to time."
Others echoed the "don't worry, be happy" line. "We have no reason to believe at this time this was an attack at all," said Dr. Steven Wiersma, Florida's top epidemiologist. An NPR report announced: "Government reassures citizens that a Florida man who contracted anthrax did not get it as the result of bioterrorism."
Well, that was Thursday. On Friday, Stevens died. On Monday, a second man who worked in the mailroom of Stevens' workplace was found to have a small amount of anthrax in his nose. Anthrax spores were found on a keyboard in the building. A third person -- a woman librarian at the office building already being treated for pneumonia -- may have tested positive for anthrax exposure. Now the FBI is investigating the Florida cases. And nobody's blaming it on wool.
The only sheep left in this picture are the ones who bought Thompson's spin.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday: "We regard this as an investigation that could become a clear criminal investigation ... We don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not." We don't have enough information. Isn't this what Thompson should have said last week? Why did he say anything at all? Thompson's credibility is shot. So is the CDC's. The agency continues to insist "there is no need for people to take any extraordinary actions or steps. They should not buy and hoard medicines or antibiotics. They should not buy gas masks" -- even as politicians and bureaucrats in Washington do just that.
Let this be a lesson to Thompson and our great guardians in lab coats. Arm us with facts or shut up. The prescription for panic prevention lies in letting us judge the risk -- and what to do about it -- for ourselves. Truth is always the most effective antidote to fear.
Correction and update: In last week's column on Ahmad Saad Nasim, the Arizona State University student who admitted to police that he fabricated two hate-crime incidents against himself, I incorrectly stated that 50 Muslim students left the campus as a result of the hoaxes. Many, but not all, of the international students who left ASU cited Nasim's false claims as a reason for leaving -- and not all identified themselves as Muslim. I regret the error. In other developments, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has yet to submit charges against Nasim for filing false police reports. I will continue to follow the case.