Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
STEP 3: ********* **, ****
After calling friends in New York to make sure they were okay—only to be confronted with an ominous busy signal every time—I raced out of the house, drove to the nearest gas station, and filled my tank. With planes down in three states so far, it wasn’t clear yet that the attacks were over.
Though I imagined panic in the streets and long lines at gas pumps as people tried to flee to rural areas, the Arco station near my home was strangely quiet. Afterward, I drove to the grocery store to stock up on water. I imagined pandemonium as families filled their carts with supplies, but instead it was eerily deserted.
Perhaps most people were sitting at home, glued to the television, awaiting more information and further instructions. But my Y2K conversations had taught me that there are only two kinds of people in a crisis: the quick and the dead.
Where the future was uncertain on the eve of the millennium, after 9/11 it was much more certain: there were people out there who wanted to kill us just for being American. My propaganda collection suddenly wasn’t so hip and ironic. It was a warning sign.
Just like when man first walked on the moon or ran the mile in under four minutes, all of a sudden anything was possible. If they could hijack planes and blow up the World Trade Center, then they could just as easily slip a biological agent into our water supply or release nerve gas into a crowded airport, subway, school, or theater. It now seemed like common sense to take precautions.
Of course, I was years away from becoming a true nutcase. Back then I was just a reactionary, scrambling like everyone else. A survivalist is prepared beforehand.
After stocking up on water and canned food, I stopped at an ATM and withdrew $200 in emergency money. If there was a national crisis and the power went out, I’d need it to buy more gas and supplies.
When I returned home, I opened the copy of the Bible I’d bought while researching the millennial doomsdayers and stashed the money inside. The page happened to be Proverbs 27: “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.”
I didn’t take it as a sign, though—there’s an apt prophecy on nearly every page of the Bible. It is, after all, the original survivalist manual, full of righteous men fleeing floods, fires, plagues, genocides, and tyrants.
Though it took the federal government seventeen months to issue its first clear instructions on preparing for another terrorist attack (sending a nation of would-be survivalists shopping for duct tape and plastic sheets), it took only seven days for the next one to occur.
On September 18, letters containing anthrax spores began arriving anonymously at the offices of government officials and journalists, eventually infecting twenty-two people and killing five. As a reporter at the highest-profile newspaper in the country, I was suddenly that much closer to being a target. So when a suspicious-looking envelope with a handwritten label arrived for me at the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times, I left it unopened.
In that moment, I realized I was no longer a detached observer, chronicling and mocking the paranoid. I was now officially one of them. And so my stack of unopened hand-addressed letters and packages grew from a single envelope to a small pile to a veritable mountain.
We make fun of those we’re most scared of becoming.
Fortunately, in case I caught a respiratory infection while traveling in Iran, my doctor had given me a prescription for Cipro, which happens to be the same pill to take in case of anthrax exposure. So I felt vaguely protected. But newscasters also warned that a chemical attack could be next, and I had no protection from that.
So I decided to purchase a gas mask.
Like many others since the attacks, I was haunted by a demon I’d always known about but had never met face-to-face before. It’s the same demon that haunts mothers who are overly protective of their children and people who take aspirin before they actually have a headache.
The demon is known by the name of Just in Case. It has many heads. And the more fear you have, the more heads you see.