The Year In Anxiety

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Month after month, for all too many Americans, 2002 was the year of living anxiously.

Fears of terrorism lingered, then intensified toward year's end as bombers slaughtered holiday-makers overseas and the FBI warned vaguely of "spectacular attacks" at home. War with Iraq seemed close at hand, its consequences unforeseeable.

Deadly sniper fire terrified millions living near the nation's capital, spreading jitters through schoolyards and shopping malls.

Across the country, child abductions, mass layoffs and a topsy-turvy stock market worsened the collective uneasiness. Sex abuse and corruption scandals eroded trust in religious and corporate leaders.

"For people to feel an increase in anxiety over the past year is absolutely normal and appropriate," said psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. "Learning to live on the edge — that's become, for many people, almost a way of life."

The most pervasive anxiety was a sense of insecurity, heightened after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by renewed threats from an unseen Osama bin Laden and terrorist strikes ranging from Yemen to Indonesia to Kenya.

Never before had Americans lived under an indefinite terrorism alert. The government's new, color-coded system — mostly hovering at yellow for "significant risk," briefly shifting to "high risk" orange — provided little reassurance.

Health officials publicly debated the feasibility of mass smallpox inoculations in the event of a bioterror attack. After a near-miss attack on an Israeli plane leaving Kenya, intelligence experts acknowledged that airliners were vulnerable to strikes by surface-to-air missiles available from arms traffickers.

The nonstop alert status produced numerous false alarms, including the mistaken arrest of three Muslim medical students in Florida and the diversion of an airliner after a flight attendant mistook a passenger's comb for a knife.

Eastern Washington University evacuated its entire 9,000-student campus in mid-November when a caller claiming links to al Qaeda said there were five bombs at the Spokane school. No were bombs found, nor was the caller.

"With all the threats at the national level, we can't take anything for granted," said Tom McGill, chief of campus police. "It's a sad state of affairs when you have to have that mindset."

Around military bases, and in the homes of reservists, families prepared for a possible war with Iraq. Thousands of part-time soldiers braced for call-ups, including Russ Walther, 31, a school teacher and National Guardsman from Boise, Idaho, whose wife has taken charge of the family finances.

"It really is tough for the families, and it's tougher on the guardsmen than they let on," Walther said.

For all the uncertainty regarding Iraq, professional soldiers were more steeled for that conflict than civilians in greater Washington were for the sniper shootings that persisted for three nerve-racking weeks in October.

Across populous, normally placid suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, locked-down schools canceled football games and outdoor recess. Starbucks outlets removed sidewalk seating, and gas stations strung up tarp to shield customers. Only with the arrests of two suspects at a highway rest stop did the fears subside.

"It's been a really difficult year for our area," said Stefanie Zaring, deputy executive director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland's Montgomery County, home to several of the snipers' victims. She noted that the region already had been shaken by the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon and the mailings of anthrax-tainted letters.

"Things have gotten so far out of our control," Zaring said. "No one nationally is saying it's 'OK, things are going to be better.' Instead, they're saying, 'Stay alert."'

Far from greater Washington, another breed of criminal — child abductors — stirred up nightmares for countless parents. Police arrested suspects in the kidnap-murders of girls in California, Missouri and Oregon, but no trace was found of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, abducted at gunpoint in June from her bedroom in Salt Lake City.

Many Roman Catholic parents were unnerved — and angered — by the flood of disclosures about sex abuse of children committed by priests in dioceses across the country. Most unsettling, for many Catholics, was a loss of trust in bishops who sheltered abusive priests.

Corporate executives and investment analysts also suffered from a loss of trust as Americans struggled to keep abreast of a dizzying string of business scandals and embarrassments. Boardroom icons ranging from Martha Stewart to former General Electric boss Jack Welch were among those to come under scrutiny.

The scandals were part of broader economic trends that inflicted hardship on many Americans. Companies big and small combined to lay off tens of thousands of workers, major airlines battled for survival, the stock market gyrated, and home foreclosures reached an all-time high.

In Silicon Valley, out-of-work engineers applied for $8-an-hour jobs, and people in their 40s competed with teens for entry-level positions. Total layoffs at Boeing Co. since the Sept. 11 attacks climbed past 30,000, mostly at commercial jet factories in Washington state.

For nearly 1 million unemployed workers nationwide, the year-end holidays promised to be particularly bleak. Congress adjourned for the year without extending jobless benefits due to expire three days after Christmas.

On top of other sources of stress, some regions were tormented by natural disasters — drought and wildfires in the West and South, tornadoes that killed 36 people in Tennessee, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi and Pennsylvania in November.

Though mobile-home residents suffered disproportionately from the twisters, Jo Ann Sherman of Lebanon, Tenn., said she wasn't tempted to invest in a storm shelter for her family's doublewide trailer. Her fatalism seemed appropriate in a year of worries.

"If it's going to get you," she said, "it's going to get you."
By DAVID CRARY
  • Brian Bernbaum

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