by | Oct 21, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Iwas sitting on an airplane, waiting for takeoff. It was still dark outside. Not even 6 in the morning. The guy behind me asked for sugar with his coffee.

“I’m sorry,” the flight attendant said. “I can’t give you any sugar. We’re staying away from any powdery substances right now.”

“Oh,” he mumbled, “OK.”

When she walked away, he blinked. Then, perhaps realizing what had happened, he blurted out, “Did she just say what I thought she said?”

She did, indeed. His coffee stayed black. And one more piece of normalcy was surrendered to fear.

With all the brain-clogging information that has emerged in the wake of recent anthrax scares, the thing I still have the most trouble understanding is the hoaxes. The frauds. People who get a charge out of faking you out, making you think there is the worst kind of danger.

People who would spread sugar meant for coffee and hope you think it’s deadly bacteria.

Not that there is any shortage of this behavior.

Sugar and chocolate drink mix

In Utah last week, a 29-year-old man claimed he had received a suspicious substance in the mail. The men in the masks came rushing out, and his neighbors raced off to be tested.

Only after all this havoc did the man admit that the “evil substance” was actually sugar and a drink mix, which he had stirred together.

In California, an unhappy employee left a bucket of beans and chili near the Queen Mary tourist attraction with a note: “Do Not Open — Antrax.”

Never mind that the kook misspelled the word. People freaked.

A New Jersey man reportedly sent Parmesan cheese through the mail, playing a prank. He put his return address name as “Mohammed.”

And a Connecticut state office worker claimed he had found anthrax near his work station. His building was evacuated for 2 days, leaving 800 people without a place to work. Some of those people were actually scrubbed down with decontaminant. The cost to taxpayers for the building closure was around $1.5 million.

Only problem? The whole thing was a hoax. The supposed anthrax was actually coffee creamer the guy had smeared on a paper towel.

Coffee creamer?

Police and 911 squads hear their phones ring off the hook. Someone spots a substance on a computer — which turns out to be sugar from a doughnut. Someone sees powder in a school hallway, which turns out to be a harmless pill someone stepped on.

In a stretch of less than 3 weeks, the FBI responded to more than 3,300 threats of possible bioterrorism. Normally, it gets 250 such threats a year.

Almost all of the 3,300 calls were for nothing. And too many were frauds.

Depleted self-worth

Which begs the question: What prompts someone to copycat horror? Who sits at home, or in the alley of an evacuated building, and giggles at the disruption he has caused?

How sick a world must some wacko live in to draw pleasure from making those around him petrified?

What depleted sense of self-worth makes a person seek power by watching other people squirm?

I asked these questions, then realized an obvious answer:


This is where terrorists begin, with the perverse delight of wreaking havoc while hiding.

This is where terrorists begin, reveling in the panic their cowardly acts have wrought.

This is where terrorists begin, justifying their actions with some perverted sense of self-entitlement.

Which is why the pranksters should be severely punished, and the hoax masters thrown in jail. Because it isn’t funny. It isn’t cute. It’s the embryo of the worst part of us, the part that twists some internal dissatisfaction into delight at other people’s suffering.

Nip it in the bud. For to let it take root is to remove the sweetness of freedom, beginning with no sugar in your coffee and ending only God knows where.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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