It Should Have Been Unforgettable:
The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11

19 December 2005, Tom Engelhardt,


We know now that, within five hours of the moment the Pentagon was hit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already asked his aides "to come up with plans for striking Iraq"; that within days, the President and his top officials were already considering launching the Middle Eastern war of their dreams.

We know that eight days after the attacks, the complex 342-page Patriot Act had already been hustled over to Congress by Attorney General John Ashcroft; that it passed through a cowed Senate in the dead of night on October 11th, unread by at least some of our representatives, and was signed into law on October 26. The Act was officially a response to 9/11, but as its instant appearance and rushed passage indicate, it was made up of a set of already existing right-wing hobby horses, quickly drafted provisions, and expansions of law enforcement powers taken off an FBI "wish list" (previously rejected by Congress). All these were swept together by people who, like the President's men on Iraq, saw their main chance when those buildings went down. As such, it stands in for much of what happened "in response" to 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq that the administration spent so much time tying untruthfully to that day.

9/11 was the necessary engine without which so many things wouldn't have happened, but the storm that breached the weakened and leaky dikes of the republic had been gathering since at least the first days of the Reagan administration (as recently released memos by judges Roberts and Alito remind us). In those years, rollback -- briefly in the 1950s the foreign policy of choice of zealous anti-Communists -- became domestic policy as well. To be rolled back was every modest breakwater against an imperial presidency that had been erected in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War; then every Great Society program of the 1960s; and finally, someday, everything for which the Democratic New Deal had stood.

The attacks of 9/11 gave the Bush administration an opening to attempt to sweep away the last obstacles in the path of a presidency dedicated to the idea that no prohibition of any sort should stand in its way (or domestically in the way of the Republican Party). The real costs of that day came from the leeway a frightened public, a feeble Congress, and a cowed media gave a suddenly emboldened administration to set in motion an aggrandizing vision of a militarily-enforced Pax Americana, at home as well as abroad. (Remember, this was the first administration to create a military command -- Northcom -- responsible only for North America.) In other words, the most devastating costs of "9/11" we inflicted on ourselves in a way al-Qaeda was incapable of doing.

Normally, any such proposition faces a problem. Unlike in lab experiments, there's never a control group in human life against which to measure the nature of change. Oddly enough, though, that doesn't hold when it comes to 9/11. There turns out to be something against which to measure the Bush response -- the nearly forgotten case of the anthrax killer (or killers), known in law enforcement circles as "the Amerithrax case."

- - - - -

. . . let's briefly review what did happen.

Just a week after the Twin Towers went down, the first of seven letters filled with anthrax arrived not from the distant outlands of the planet, but from Trenton, New Jersey. This first wave was sent to a potpourri of media outlets: ABC, NBC, and CBS news as well as the New York Post and the National Enquirer in Florida. They proclaimed, "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." Two more, also postmarked from Trenton and dated October 9, 2001, were sent to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. These letters emptied prime-time TV newsrooms and, for the first time since the British burned Washington in 1814, cleared the halls of Congress while it was still in session. It should have been unforgettable.

The cast of characters would come to include bumbling or recalcitrant FBI agents, intrepid disease investigators, amateur sleuths, heroic postal workers, a wounded child, brain-damaged survivors, TV personalities like Tom Brokaw, the top politicians of our nation, and the most secretive weapons scientists, labs, and arsenals of the Cold War. Just to make matters more interesting, Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons expert and for some time the main (as the Attorney General put it) "person of interest" in the investigation, had access to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland at Fort Dietrich where some of the country's most secret bioweapons work was done. It should have been the case of the century. It should have been unforgettable.

The Whole Thing: The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11

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