fainting couch
Image used with the permission of Tildology.

Yesterday at Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield, California, a bag triggered an alarm in a screening machine. Here is Reuters on what happened next:

U.S. Transportation and Security administration screeners turned up five Gatorade bottles full of what they called a "suspicious-looking liquid." Swabs of the bag and bottles tested positive for the explosives TNT and TATP.

When the bottles were opened, two of the screeners smelled a strong chemical odor, complained of nausea and were rushed to a local hospital, where they treated and released, Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman Michael Whorf said.

Only after flights had been diverted while the airport was closed for hours was it determined that the "susupicious-looking liquid" was harmless:

"The substances in the bottles did turn out to be honey. They tested negative for all explosives and narcotics. It is nothing but honey," FBI spokesman Steve Dupre told Reuters.

Why would two baggage handlers need medical attention after being exposed to honey? Keep in mind that for twelve days running, most media cycles have been dominated by the failed Christmas Day attack by the underpants bomber. I suspected that this response was similar to many in 2001 during the anthrax attacks when multiple people required medical attention after being exposed to "white powder" that later turned out to be harmless. I ran a search on "anthrax scare 2001 white powder hysteria" and found a fascinating article in New Scientist.

The article opens by reminding us of an incident from 2005 in Chechnya:

In December 2005 pupils and teachers at a school in the Shelkovsk region of Chechnya reported that they were suffering respiratory difficulties, seizures and fainting. The symptoms, which quickly spread to schools in surrounding villages, did not respond to medical treatment. Eventually close to 100 people were affected, mainly adolescent girls.

Extensive testing found no evidence for the nerve gas that the Chechens suspected, and the only treatment that led to improvement of symptoms was pyschological, although most Chechens rejected the Russian diagnosis of mass hysteria.

Later in the article, we get a wider perspective on mass hysteria:

Mass hysteria has been documented since the Middle Ages. Psychiatrist Simon Wessely of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College London says its causes tend to reflect a society’s beliefs. In the past, witchcraft was often blamed – and in some societies it still is – but in the industrialised world, environmental contamination is more often seen as the culprit. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Wessely predicted outbreaks of mass hysteria related particularly to bioterrorism. And despite the difficulties in spotting outbreaks, that now seems to be happening.

In 1987 Wessely suggested that there were two types of mass hysteria: acute episodes that happen all the time and vanish quickly once their true cause has been acknowledged, and a more serious, chronic variety that tend to take place against the backdrop of social trauma in which trust between people and the ruling authorities has broken down. "For an episode to become chronic it has to be believable by those affected, and it has to be reinforced, at least at the start, by local experts, including physicians and the media," he says.

Emphasis added.

Note that although the Bakersfield event is now over (and thus not "chronic"), Wessely’s criteria for an event becoming chronic are met: the baggage handlers appeared to believe they were exposed to something harmful, and the belief was reinforced by the ongoing media coverage of the underpants bomb coupled with the initial false positive reading from the screening device.

Although the article dismisses the thousands of anthrax "white powder" scares that occurred in 2001 after the anthrax attacks as acute events, I believe that we are entering a phase of chronic mass hysteria. Wesseley’s observation that the key to chronic mass hysteria lies in the loss of trust between people and the ruling authorities describes perfectly the situation in which the United States now finds itself. Through the use of failures to prevent terrorism as a political cudgel with which both political parties have attacked one another and the bipartisan endorsement of immunity for government figures for crimes such as spying or torture, public trust of ruling authorities continues to sink.

As documented extensively in George Lakoff’s The Political Mind, Glenn Greenwald’s Great American Hypocrites and Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, Republicans cultivate their "strict father" approach to "protecting" the American people from a large number of perceived dangers. The media comply all too readily with this approach and are quick to highlight each new "danger". This problem is exacerbated by a Democrat now holding the Presidency. Couple the fear-mongering with the other attacks on Obama’s legitimacy from the birthers and the stage is now set for mass hysteria on a scale not seen before.

Although this week’s "white powder" incidents so far have not led to any hospitalizations, I would not be surprised by more fake attacks leading to hospitalizations soon. More hysterical reactions to explosive false positives are very likely, as well. (One mode of screening involves "sniffer" devices that detect high nitrogen levels typical of explosives–and fertilizers. Note that the honey belonged to a gardener who had been visiting an agricultural area.) Also, it will be very interesting to watch the upcoming "strike" by the tea party movement on January 20. This group would be expected to be particularly vulnerable to mass hysteria should a suspicious substance or object be spotted during their protest, since many in that movement question Obama’s legitimacy.

Mass hysteria strikes me as a sort of "collateral damage" arising from the intentional use of fear when the legitimacy of government has also been attacked. Naomi Klein described perfectly in The Shock Doctrine how fear is used to implement radical policies that otherwise would never be contemplated, but I don’t think that any thought was given to how the twin ploys of fear-mongering and attacks on government legitimacy will play out. It seems to me that we are entering a chronic phase in which we will see hysterical responses to what otherwise would be acute events. Heightened awareness does have value in the event of a real attack, but it places a high hysteria likelihood on the attendant false positive events arising from the same heightened awareness.