“I have a cold,” someone says, Kleenex in hand, and then waits a beat. “Or anthrax.”
It’s not a very good joke—unfunny and insensitive, in light of the death toll from inhalation anthrax, four dead and counting. Black humor never inspires belly laughs, though; at best, it exacts sardonic smiles or nervous giggles. Its virtue lies elsewhere—in helping us say, with ironic wink and smile, what we cannot say in earnest.
For, somehow, we desperately do want to have anthrax. It would separate us from the unwashed, rhinovirus-afflicted masses, allowing us to join instead the exalted ranks of “The Targets”: the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), various media outlets, Washington, New York. Flu-like symptoms and a 60-day regimen of Cipro have come to separate the sheep from the goats, the cognoscenti from the provincials. We want anthrax because it would mean that someone, somewhere, thinks we are important enough to kill. The American preoccupation with fame isn’t dead; it’s just dormant. In peacetime, a book contract or bodyguard or a big pair of designer sunglasses trumpet an intriguing, even dangerous level of fame. In wartime, that same status is signaled by a white powder spilling from an envelope. We want to be possessed of a reputation that even enemies lurking outside the blue glow of American popular culture can recognize. If the price of such fame is a life-threatening respiratory infection, then so be it; it’s a small price to pay.
We want to be infected by anthrax for another reason, too. In the same way that, after the perversion of airliners into weapons of mass destruction, we found friends-of-friends on the casualties lists; in the same way that newspapers in the hinterlands carried stories of native sons and daughters living in New York, no matter how remotely they were affected by the attack; in the same way that we called long-neglected acquaintances in Manhattan, just to see how they were doing. We want to knit ourselves connections to a disaster that is in some ways very remote. It is hard to feel connected to a disaster that kills four people in a country of 278,000,000. How much more a part of the disaster we would feel if infected!
Of course, we shouldn’t wish for anthrax. Inhalation anthrax is a brutal disease, killing victims who do not distinguish their flu-like symptoms from the common flu in time to take the life-saving antibiotics. Even the most vainglorious of us cannot really want their fame confirmed by death. Neither do we need an anthrax infection to confirm our solidarity with victims of terrorism. If the joke about being infected by anthrax lingers, as it seems likely to do well into cold season, it shouldn’t be repeated as it is now, in tones revealing equal parts fear and longing. A good comedian—especially one delivering gallows humor—must know never to take himself too seriously.