Je suis Bat Boy

I started at the newspaper in October 2001. Here’s your desk, here’s your phone, over there’s where your mailbox will be eventually when our mailboxes are returned.

Mail delivery to the newsroom had been suspended. All of the paper’s incoming mail was being handled and inspected elsewhere because of the anthrax attacks.

BatBoyThose attacks, weirdly forgotten just a few years later, lasted for several weeks during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The main targets were newspapers and TV news departments, but they also included the offices of two Democratic U.S. senators, the headquarters of several supermarket tabloids, and a few other random citizens whose infections and deaths have never been explained.

Ultimately, the anthrax letters sent through the mail would wind up infecting 22 people with the disease, killing five of them. And then, after a few weeks, the letters just stopped showing up and the crisis faded away.

Back in October 2001, though, nobody knew how many of the letters had been sent, who was sending them, or why. No one knew where those letters might arrive next.

The first victim of the attacks, Robert Stevens, died on Oct. 5. Stevens was a photo editor for American Media, Inc., the Boca Raton, Florida-based publisher of several supermarket tabloids, including the National Enquirer, the Sun (where Stevens worked), and the Sun’s main rival for paranormal hilarity, the Weekly World News.

The Sun and the Weekly World News were simultaneously tabloids and parodies of tabloids. They were satire. Sometimes that satire was pretty brilliant. Other times it was hilariously over-the-top. Often it walked a troubling line by seeming to reinforce the very things it was ridiculing (the “Ed Anger” columns seem to have been read un-ironically by many people who shared the column’s apparent racist, sexist, nativist, homophobic views). And more often the satire of these tabloids adopted a sneering tone toward all the marks and rubes who weren’t in on the joke — who read its accounts of alien abductions, “Bible prophecy,” cryptozoology, ghosts, and the like without fully realizing it was all a gag.

But my point here is not to critique or to analyze the quality or meaning of those now-defunct satiric tabloids. I just wanted to remind us all that just a little more than a decade ago, a terror attack here in the United States targeted and killed a visual artist who worked for a satiric tabloid.

The anthrax attacks targeted journalists and satirists alike, and prompted a great deal of chest-thumping, defiant affirmations of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

And then, three weeks after the death of Robert Stevens, the Patriot Act passed the U.S. Senate on a vote of 98-to-1 and was signed into law.

Plus ça change. …

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