Amid anxiety, remember we've been through times like these before

February 16, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - So, have you got your duct tape yet? What about your plastic sheets?

As you're surely aware, no less an authority than the federal government has recommended that we keep both on hand as protection against a bioterror attack. We are told we should be prepared to tape off windows and vents to keep out airborne poisons that might be unleashed against us.

I haven't hit the hardware store yet, but I imagine the scene - especially in Washington and New York - is not unlike that in Florida whenever a hurricane takes aim at the peninsula. Plywood sheets take on almost totemic importance, and you'd knock down your own grandmother for the last package of D batteries.

It brings to mind memories of childhood in the nuclear age, when the Commies had The Bomb and we were terrified they would use it. If I recall correctly, it was on the last Friday of every month that we students in the Los Angeles Unified School District heard the air raid siren signaling the "drop drill," at which you were supposed to fall to your knees under your desk, head down, hands clasped behind your neck.

This was supposed to protect you in the event of nuclear attack. Of course, the only benefit to be gained from crouching on your knees during a nuclear strike is that it leaves you in a better position to kiss your fanny goodbye.

It was busy work, designed to make us feel we had some say in our destinies. I get the same sense with the duct tape.

I'm no bioterrorism expert, but as David Letterman is fond of saying, here are a couple of questions from a dumb guy:

Is it really possible, using duct tape and plastic, to seal off every window, door, vent, attic and seam in such a way as to keep air from entering a house or even a room?

Assuming it is possible, what are the people inside supposed to breathe?

Just asking.

Am I the only one who's nostalgic for Monica Lewinsky right about now? I remember thinking something back when she and her stained dress were creating headlines in type sizes usually reserved for the outbreak of war. I looked at everything that was going on, a nation in uproar, a Congress in outrage, and I said to myself, "You know what? These are the good old days and we don't even know it." It just seemed to me that for all their turmoil, those were not bad times. Crime was down, stocks were up, the nation was at peace, jobs were plentiful, 16-year-olds were becoming billionaires on the Internet. And impeachment never killed anybody.

The thing about good old days is that you seldom recognize them when you are in them. They are most clearly seen after they are gone.

History is a wheel that is constantly turning, always revolving through cycles of setback and advance, poverty and prosperity, war and peace. Nothing is forever. Ask the Romans.

We find ourselves delivered into jittery days, an anxious era where things we once took for granted are suddenly in play, up for grabs. We have seen unthinkable sights, borne unthinkable loss and heard constant warnings - at first discomfittingly vague and now frighteningly definite - that more of the same lies ahead. So some of us hoard cans of food, bottles of water, medical kits and matches. Some of us pray. And some of us hoard and pray, simultaneously.

It seems a time of fear without precedent.

But we've been here before. Take it from a veteran of many drop drills. We've made our lives here before. Come safely through here before.

I don't know about you, but it comforts me to remember that the wheel is turning still.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached at lpitts@herald.com or by calling 1-888-251-4407.

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