After Sept. 11, Terrorists are New Villains of Urban Legends
Poison perfume being sent through the mail. A beverage beloved in America linked to Osama bin Laden. Business travelers getting drugged and waking up to find their kidneys are gone.
The conspiracy-minded have long fueled their anxieties with stories in grocery store tabloids and on the Internet, where rumors, myths and urban legends are recycled with the villain du jour. And the new bogeyman, unsurprisingly, is the terrorist.
"It seems like there's an increase of them at the moment," said Barbara Mikkelson, of suburban Los Angeles, who debunks Internet myths on a Web site she runs with her husband. "What happened Sept. 11 shook up everyone as to what is possible."
Urban legends have been around a long time - a popular tale was that gang members would drive around with their lights off and kill any motorist who dared flash his lights at their car. But terrorists are now cast as the rumored villains, tapping into people's legitimate fears of attacks and governmental alerts.
In recent weeks, for example, the Pennsylvania State Police has been hearing a rumor that seven women died after inhaling a perfume sample mailed to them by terrorists.
Not only is it unverifiable, it's not even original, a variation of the "knockout perfume" myth which has been in circulation since 1999. In the earlier tale, robbers used ether-tainted perfume to knock out their victims.
"They're kind of like a boomerang. They come out now and they come back in two years in a slightly different version. They don't go away," said Sgt. Raymond Cook, of the state police's criminal investigation unit.
While urban legends and Internet myths are more of a nuisance than anything else, they can consume law enforcement time and energy. Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, said no statistics are kept on how many false reports are investigated, but, in the wake of anthrax scares across the nation, most every threat is taken seriously.
Sometimes, the threats even seem to come from official sources.
Last month, the Harris County Attorney's Office in Houston started receiving hundreds of inquiries about the poison perfume scare. It turned out an employee had received an e-mail about the rumor and sent it out to friends - with the Harris County attorney's e-mail address included.
That, to many people, made the report seem valid. County workers had to run down the rumor and squelch it.
Even more damage can be done when a business is tied to terrorists. That happened last year when false reports spread that Snapple - the flavored iced tea company - was owned or linked to Osama bin Laden. It got so bad the chief executive officer issued an Internet memo saying Snapple had no ties with the terrorist leader.
"We got tons of phone calls and tons of inquiries. People were upset for no reason," said Steve Jarmon, a spokesman for Snapple, which is own by London-based Cadbury Schweppes. "It was an uncontrolled rumor spiral. It took months and months of hammering at it to turn it around."
The rumors themselves can run from something straight out of "The X-Files," such as the one about business travelers being drugged at hotel lounges and then having their kidneys harvested while they're out cold. Others are patently absurd, such as a fake memo from bin Laden addressed to "cavemates" and complaining that someone stole his cheese crackers.
Often, the urban legends aren't deliberately invented but are cases of "misremembering or misinterpreting" items seen on TV or read somewhere, Mikkelson said.
Mikkelson and Dr. Frederic Neuman, with the Anxiety and Phobia Center in White Plains, N.Y., said the rumors themselves are not harmless, causing people who are already nervous to become more so.
"They compromise our sense of safety," said Mikkelson. "They convince us that every shadow needs to be jumped at and a terrorist is lurking inside each mailbox."