Flying high

Americans seem to be panicking far less post-11 September than the British did during the Great Foot-and-Mouth Panic in spring 2001.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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During the Great British Foot-and-Mouth Panic of spring 2001, I made the mistake of getting on a train bound for the West Midlands. It wasn’t that this livestock disease actually affected the rolling stock – but the panic it generated was enough to bring Britain to a standstill for a good few weeks.

With this nightmare still fresh in my mind, I approached my debut trip to Washington DC with trepidation. Two postal workers here had just died, apparently from inhaling anthrax spores, and my US friends told me that the fear was palpable throughout the city.

The planes were still flying – but how were they flying? Would we be jumping at shadows and flecks of dust? Would check-in take forever, as passengers were searched, sprayed and interrogated? Or would the plane just be empty, as wannabe travellers to the USA decided to ‘Stay out of the country’?

Nope. In the end, it was an easy ride, which only made me think – again – about how much a genuine crisis can put our poxier panics of 2001 into perspective.

Yes, we were searched – every passenger on that British Airways flight. But it was a brief search, relaxed and even apologetic about the inconvenience (a rarity when it comes to transportation in the UK, where inconvenience is generally presented as the norm rather than the exception). Of course, there was the daft list of More Potentially Dangerous Things You Cannot Take, which, from what I recall, included knitting needles (beware the terrorist grannies). And other people, I am sure, have had a tougher time of it.

Yet for me, the main difference seemed to be that a friendly man at Paddington Station took us passengers out back, rifled carefully through our suitcases, and sent us on our way to the (relatively) new Heathrow Express train, which was fast, comfortable and had TV news – totally unlike normal British train travel.

The plane took off on time and arrived early. No mention of hijackings or terrorists – though one oddity was the inclusion in the in-flight entertainment of an optional video showing exercises you could do from your seat. I assume this was less to do with keeping the gym-obsessives happy than it was a precaution against deep-vein thrombosis – even though there remains no established link between flying and developing blood clots.

When we got to Washington, the immigration and customs people waved us through. Again, I thought of stories from the UK’s foot-and-mouth days, of passengers being sprayed and forced to walk through disinfectant, of boxes of chocolate and toffee being interned in quarantine. Now, when faced with a far more human threat than a livestock disease, it seems we might be managing better to keep our heads.

It’s not that things are normal here. Far from it. The mailmen and women have been delivering the post wearing face-masks – apparently nobody has told them what to do, and they have had to make their precautions up. Building security has been stepped up – for example, visitors to the offices of the Washington Post are no longer sent up to the relevant department, but are met in the foyer and then taken upstairs. Particularly within the USA, people are flying less.

Even so, things have not fallen apart, in the way they have previously done in Britain. Friends tell me that, in fact, more has changed than many people want to believe – that high levels of public anxiety coexist with a dogged belief that things will eventually return to normal.

They won’t – the political and media reaction has already seen to that. But there’s something quite positive about the fact that people at least want things to be the same as before. Quite different to the UK, where we have become so accustomed to making a crisis out of every drama that we seem to be on a permanent lookout for the next apocalypse.

Read on:

spiked-issues: After 11 September

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Topics Politics


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