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For all that, we aren't necessarily in a moral panic. Set aside the government for a moment, and instead consider the governed. I began this essay with a litany of goofy responses to the terrorist threat. But it's a big country, and people do dumb things in it every day. That doesn't mean they're typical. "I think that people have tried to deal with this in a relatively calm, relatively professional way," argues Best. "I don't like the word panic -- it implies irrational emotionalism. Think of the vast number of people who successfully evacuated the World Trade Center. Clearly, they didn't panic."
What's more, just as many apparent threats have turned out to be harmless, much behavior that initially appears to be hysterical might, on closer examination, prove rational. Such myopia has dogged some moral panic theorists, most notably the Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall. Hall's analysis of mugging in 1970s Britain held that the ruling class had conjured a panic over street crime to distract the masses from economic woes. His critics point out that muggings really did increase in the period in question, and that the uptick in public concern was therefore more sensible than Hall supposed.
Similarly, some observers have looked askance at Americans for suddenly stocking up on gas masks, learning martial arts, searching for Cipro to ward off anthrax, and rushing to practice at the shooting range. Writing about how anxieties were "getting the better of many of us," a reporter for the Orange Country Register dismissively declared, "It's gone far beyond the buying of gas masks and the hoarding of bottled water. Now people are buying guns. They're wearing surgical gloves and scrubbing their hands after handling mail. They're canceling trips, avoiding bridges, venturing to malls only in pairs. They're mobilizing to shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant, plotting escape routes in case it blows, pinpointing family meeting places in the event of catastrophe." Similar pieces, each with its own local spin, have appeared in other cities across the country, from Fort Worth to New York.
But do such precautions really represent an overactive anxiety? Or does it make more sense to regard them as an inchoate, spontaneous movement toward civil defense, with citizens acting to protect themselves after the institutions that are supposed to protect us failed? Chances are, we'd be a lot safer if those institutions would do less to move power toward the center (by, say, setting up secret military tribunals) and more to facilitate our ability to defend ourselves (by, say, expediting Food and Drug Administration approval of other anthrax treatments).
In any event, preparing for the worst hardly belongs in the same category as social scapegoating or rushing ill-considered bills into law. Spores and errant airplanes may haunt the average American, but that doesn't mean he's panicking. For true hysterics, you have to look to the political class. Unfortunately, we may be stuck with the consequences of their hysteria for a long time to come.