One of us was fussing with an unopened food container with unusually resistant tamper-proof packaging, and that led to our recalling how it is that all the food and drug containers in this country came to encumbered with such strips and tabs, etc., in order to assure us that no one had violated the pristine purity of the contents since the product had left the factory.
It was back in the early 1980s, and someone (never caught) had laced some Tylenol capsules with cyanide. Several people had died, sales of Tylenol had dried up nationwide, and lo and behold-almost overnight-it had been decided that virtually everything that entered the mouths of American must be packaged in a new, tamper-proof way forevermore.
One incident costing the lives of about one out of every forty million Americans-and our packaging practices were changed forever. More of a hassle, more expensive-but by golly we'd be safer!
That recollection prompted my friend and me to remember also how fearfully Americans responded in the 80s and 90s whenever some isolated instance of terrorism would occur in some other part of the world to which Americans might travel as tourists. We recalled how, in the wake of some terrorist explosion in Europe, thousands and thousands of Americans would call up their travel agents and cancel their vacation travel plans.
And then there's the way Halloween trick-or-treating got transformed nationwide by a few stories (almost all of them mere urban legends) about poison or razor blades embedded in the treats.
And here we are, still running scared in the wake of 9/11. Yes, 9/11 was terrible. But even looking just at the Americans who were flying on that very day, less than one-tenth of one percent of all the people who flew on airliners on 9/11 were killed.
In World War II, when American marines stormed onto the beaches of Japanese islands, sometimes a third of those marines would become casualties. But they did their duty. The life-expectancy of a marine landing with a flamethrower mounted on his back was measured in terms of seconds! That's extreme danger.
We're a nation of 300 million people who lost 3,000 on one terrible day. An important occurrence. But what happened to our sense of proportion?
We are a nation that could fight two mighty and populous fascist powers in World War II, and could confront the possibility of sudden nuclear annihilation during that "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War, without overthrowing our constitutional protections nor enthroning an unchecked power in the president nor legitimating torture.
How did we become a nation so ruled by fear?
But even before the Bushites started their fear-mongering, Americans were swearing off flying in sufficient numbers to send the airline industry into a swoon. And as the earlier Tylenol episode shows, this American proclivity to fearful overreaction did not begin on 9/11.
It is not good to be the slave of fear. Fear is a solvent of rational thought, of sensible perspective.