Now we know how they feel at clinics

October 24, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Right after Sept. 11, when stunned Americans first looked darkly into the unknown, they asked each other what it would be like to live under a cloud of terrorism.

The question was shaped rather like a riddle: What do you call a country where people go about life as random targets of suicidal bombers? The answer was one word: Israel.

Americans finally felt what it was like to send a daughter out dancing without knowing if she'd come home. We felt what it was like to sit over a table in a cafe that could be blown to bits. And Israelis, more in sympathy than smugness, nodded their heads and said: "Now you get it."

Today anthrax has shut down half the Capitol. It has sent television network employees to their medicine cabinets. A rash of threats and hoaxes has made offices jittery.

The new riddle is: What do you call a workplace where people go on doing their job knowing terrorism can come through the door or the mailbag? This time the answer is two words: Planned Parenthood. And this time, the organization's president, Gloria Feldt, says soberly, "Now you understand that we aren't just hyperventilating when we call this terrorism."

We are experiencing what life has been like at reproductive health clinics across the country for more than a decade. Not just at Planned Parenthood, of course, but at any center where patients come for abortions.

Over the years, 150 clinics have been bombed or torched. A hundred clinics have been attacked with butyric acid. Seven people have been killed. And -- way ahead of the crowd -- these clinics had their first anthrax threats in 1998.

Doctors and nurses, receptionists and counselors have needed courage just to go to work. They face terrorists so perverse and exploitative that on Oct. 12, in the middle of a national crisis, these homegrown haters orchestrated a multistate anthrax scare targeting more than 100 clinics.

They sent envelopes with a return address from government offices marked "Time Sensitive -- Urgent Security Notice -- Open Immediately." Some of these envelopes, filled with powder that has -- so far -- not been anthrax, contained messages from "The Army of God."

These clinics where homeland insecurity is the norm are way ahead of the rest of us mere novices in the act of working with fear. The National Abortion Federation, an association of clinics, has learned to do security assessments at home and at work. Others have learned how to design a workplace that is safe but doesn't look like an armed camp. They have learned how to keep a sense of humor and a sense of mission. In short, they have learned how to carry on.

As Ms. Feldt says, casting her combat-toughened glance at the empty halls of the Capitol, "One of the important things we learned is never close your doors. We believe that staying the course is our best revenge."

They have also learned, as Ms. Feldt puts it, that "domestic and foreign terrorism are joined at the head." They share the same intolerance. The Army of God and the soldiers of the jihad find support in the words of those who would never fly a plane into a tower or send anthrax to a senator. These are people who provide a "moral" framework for violence by labeling Americans as "infidels" or doctors as "murderers."

At this moment, we don't know whether the anthrax threats to the politicians and the media are homegrown or imported. And we don't know how many letters contain baby powder and how many a deadly bacteria. We do know how easy it has been to ignore terrorists when they were over "there" -- overseas. And how easy it has been to deny terrorism targeted at "them" -- abortion providers.

The other day, Attorney General John Ashcroft, announcing the prosecution of a Connecticut man who carried out an office hoax, declared that "terrorism hoaxes are not victimless crimes, but are the destructive acts of cowards." Not a word was said condemning the vast and targeted terrorist hoax against clinics.

Nevertheless, in the last weeks Ms. Feldt says she's been listening to the president through her own expert ear. He called terrorism "an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world."

She's keeping a list and thinking, maybe we're beginning to get it.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is

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