Girls and their gas masks

Fears about biological warfare are breaking along gender lines.

Published October 10, 2001 5:58PM (EDT)

When it comes to matters of the heart, we've been sold the premise that men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Maybe, maybe not. But when it comes to thinking the unthinkable, the sexes are most definitely from different planets.

At a dinner party in Los Angeles last week, 12 people -- six men, six women -- sat around a beautifully laid-out table covered with fine crystal and lush flowers. While the setting evoked an escapist fantasy, the conversation dwelt obsessively on the harsh, inescapable realities of the moment. Which means it centered, as all conversations these days do, on the likelihood of another terrorist attack on American soil -- this time involving deadly chemicals or killer germs.

The Martians -- Alpha males all -- kept pooh-poohing the idea of preparing for chemical or germ warfare. "Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Russia have all been developing biowarfare programs for years," offered one of them, a prominent film executive active in national politics. "And they haven't used it against either Israel or us, have they?" It seemed that none of these masters of their universes could allow themselves to even imagine being in a situation over which they had so little power and control.

The Venusians, meanwhile, were busy setting up crisis networks, discussing the proper way to equip a safe room, and trading tidbits on the best antibiotics to stock up on. One of the women present, Irena Medavoy, whose husband Mike has been a part of movies ranging from "Amadeus" to "Dances with Wolves," has been organizing an "anti-terrorism task force" which sponsors lectures by experts on bioterrorism. "Traditionally," she explained, "women and children were always the first to be saved. This time they were among the first to be slaughtered -- and the weakest will obviously be most affected by a germ attack. So it's hardly hysterical to try to be as prepared as possible."

The only man who broke ranks with his gender and agreed with her was Arnold Kopelson, the producer of such box office hits as "The Fugitive" and "Platoon." He agreed because he knew too much not to. Partly because he had produced "Outbreak," the Dustin Hoffman thriller about a rampaging virus. And partly because, prior to Sept. 11, he was eerily in the midst of planning production of a new film about bioterrorism when reality suddenly became more terrifying than any disaster movie.

To explain his dissent, Kopelson got up from the table, moved to a nearby armchair, and pulled out a copy of "Germs," an utterly horrifying book about germ warfare by New York Times journalists Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad (dinner, needless to say, had come to an end). He slowly started to read. It was like an apocalyptic version of "Masterpiece Theater" -- laced with tales of untraceable killer germs and Nobel laureates devoting their lives to perfecting bioweapons.

"Our research," read Kopelson, "found that the former Soviet Union had manufactured enough anthrax, smallpox and plague to kill everyone on earth -- and that much of it disappeared when the Iron Curtain fell. Even more disturbing, many of the Soviet scientists are now working for rogue states that harbor terrorists."

As the Venus/Mars divide -- or was it the Virus/Mars divide? -- continued to widen, I wondered aloud how the men would have reacted if this were, say, 1938 and we were all seated around an equally elegant table in London, and someone raised the specter of Hitler and his master plan to exterminate millions of Jews in gas chambers. Would the "what-me-worry?" Alpha males have been equally dismissive? ("Oh, they've had that ability for years, but they've never used it, have they? Besides, I'm sure Mr. Chamberlain is on top of everything.")

In a telling admission, last week U.S. Army intelligence specialists recruited the creative forces behind such movies as "Die Hard," "Missing In Action," and "Fight Club" to help them brainstorm about what the next terrorist assault might look like. As if only fantasists and special effects whizzes could fathom the violent, chaotic and destructive forces that we face -- forces many of the rest of us (OK ... men) have relegated to the outer limits not only of our everyday world but of our imagination.

Some people, of course, find it easier to integrate the terrible into their normal lives -- often because their lives have already been touched by tragedy. "When my mother was 17," says Irena Medavoy, "the Nazis invaded Russia. She was captured and sent to a labor camp in Germany. None of the men in her family survived. And many of them had thought, when the war had started, 'Oh, they'll never come all the way to Krasnador,' the village where they lived. So I have no trouble believing that the unthinkable can happen."

If only our leaders had started thinking about the unthinkable before Sept. 11, we would not be as vulnerable as we are today. "None of us," said President Bush this week, epitomizing the prevailing failure of imagination, "could have imagined what was to come, the scale of the emergency, the enormity of the danger, the magnitude of the evil." Why not? How could anyone who has lived in a century that included the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia say that?

For the good of the country, the Alpha male leaders we've entrusted with our national security should all have a long talk with the women in their lives (if, in fact, there are any still speaking to them). In the meantime, hand me my gas mask and pass the Cipro.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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