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Be afraid. Be very afraid

Atlantans face their fears in the era of terror alerts

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Halloween will be a day like any other this year. You'll probably see diminutive trick-or-treaters dressed as pirates or Harry Potter, but don't be mistaken. These days, it's Oct. 31 all year round.

The bogeymen are out in force, and they're branching out from their traditional stations under your bed and in your closet. An upgraded, 21st-century bogeyman could take the seat next to you on an airplane or carry a suspicious package into a high school. He could be downloading your private information on a computer, or sitting at the wheel of the SUV looming hugely in your rear-view mirror.

Since we're living in both an Information Age and a Terror Age, we're constantly discovering new things to be frightened of, from toxic levels in our back yards to weapons of mass destruction in somebody else's. We're now a nation of scaredy-cats and worry-warts -- and being insufficiently freaked out might itself be cause for alarm.

To help us get a grip on ourselves, we've taken the (racing) pulse of various Atlantans to find out what's spooking us. In the spirit of the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded "Alert Level Status," we distinguish between the phobias that can be easily dismissed, and the ones that are fully justified. Because if we're going to be jumping at shadows anyway, we might as well jump at the right ones.

THE FEAR: Chain businesses
THE FRIGHTENED: R. Land, visual artist

I'm horrified of Atlanta being overrun with chain restaurants and businesses -- anything to make it lose its unique local flavor. I moved to Atlanta eight years ago from Florida, so I'm sort of a refugee from that kind of development. I watched Jacksonville turn into the kind of place where everything is a chain, where the best restaurant in town was an Olive Garden. We've already seen the start of it. There's now a Starbucks in Little Five Points. The demographics are changing. And with this new Sembler project [on Moreland Avenue], we're going to have a Target moving in.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High. The suburban big-boxes have already made a dent in intown businesses, and Ponce de Leon has become the land of chains. Case in point: Tortillas.

THE FEAR: Multiple personality syndrome
THE FRIGHTENED: Jane Catoe, CL columnist

I used to be afraid that I had a split personality and didn't know it. Now I'm afraid that I might not have even one. Actually, I'm chock-full of irrational fears. It's hobby number three, behind bitching about stuff and gossiping.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: Low. Discount any self-diagnosed mental conditions, unless one of your personalities is an accredited psychotherapist.

THE FEAR: Devaluation of the arts
THE FRIGHTENED: Susan V. Booth, artistic director, Alliance Theatre

I worry that the arts are too often perceived as a luxury item -- an optional experience that our legislators and funders measure against other social services and say, "But the money needs to go to more important issues." And I worry that not enough of us are making the argument that without the capacity for compassion and emotional empathy that the arts give, we won't even be able to have the conversation about any social issue because we'll forget to worry about the other guy.

And I worry a lot about people on cell phones driving SUVs and checking their mascara simultaneously.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: High, especially in this town.

THE FEAR: The U.S. government
THE FRIGHTENED: Gerry Weber, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia

What scares me this Halloween?
Shadowy figure. Sneaks into my house.
Peeks into my bedroom.
Powerful creature.
Tells me what to believe
And how to live.
That is always right even when wrong.
And can lock me in a dungeon and throw away the key.
The government, of course.
Oh, but pickles scare me more.
Hate those nasty green things.
I'd run even faster from a pickle.

TERROR ALERT STATUS: For the government, elevated. For pickles, not so much.

THE FEAR: Air pollution
THE FRIGHTENED: Neill Herring, Sierra Club of Georgia

The most pressing, fearful threat is the blindness about air pollution in metro Atlanta from cars, power plants and the big secret source for pollution, the airport everyone wants named for them. Atlanta and cars are already at the worst-case scenario point. The place cannot function with or without the goddamned things, and the only thing officialdom can think of is to add more. They are choking us, and the environments in which they perform best are hard on the eye, ruinous to the ear and painful to the lungs. And there is a well-financed lobby that thinks that making this even worse is a good idea.

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