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The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11

Those powder-filled envelopes of October 2001 are all but forgotten. How come?

| Mon Dec. 19, 2005 1:00 AM PST

[This is the second of two pieces focused on reevaluating the costs of the September 11 attacks. In the first, I took the New York Times back to the week before September 11, 2001, time-machine style, and found a forgotten world in which the Bush administration, with its poll numbers dropping and congressional Republicans fretting, was drifting, politically challenged, and besieged -- a moment not unlike our own. I concluded: "Four long years to make it back to September 10th, 2001 in an American world now filled to the brim with horrors, a United States which is no longer a ‘country,' but a ‘homeland' and a Homeland Security State."]

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Imagine, for a moment, that someone had a finger on a pause button just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. That's not such a crazy thought. After all, most Americans watched the attacks and their aftermath on television; and, as coups de théâtre, they were clearly meant to be viewed on screen. Of course, the technology for pausing reality didn't quite exist then. But if someone in that pre-TiVo age had somehow hit pause soon after the Twin Towers came down, while the Pentagon was still smoking, when Air Force One was carrying a panicky George Bush in the wrong direction rather than towards Washington and New York to become the resolute war president of his dreams, if someone had paused everything and given us all a chance to catch our breath, what might we have noticed about the actual damage to our world?

As a start, there were those two towers and so many of the people in them (and those who came to rescue them) tumbling in that near-mushroom cloud of smoke into one of the greatest piles of instant rubble and powder in history. Even a few days later, glimpsed down various side streets, the vision of destruction at the World Trade Center site -- those gigantic, jagged shards of left-over building -- were (I can attest) more than worthy of some civilization-ending sci-fi film; of, say, the final scene in the original Planet of the Apes where the top of the off-kilter Statue of Liberty looms from the sand. So, other than the loss of lives, the initial cost of 9/11 was two large buildings and, in Washington, part of a third -- clearly stand-ins for American financial and military power. (The fourth hijacked plane, which went down in Pennsylvania, was surely on its way to the capital to add political power to the ensemble, creating the sort of triad that human beings seem eternally attracted to.)

Add four expensive planes (and their passengers and crews) to the list. Add as well, the economic impact of the downtown of a great city left in chaos; of the Stock Exchange halted; of destroyed businesses and lost business; then include the whack the travel and tourism industry took; and that's undoubtedly not a full list. None of this -- the lives lost most of all -- was in any way minor. We were hurt, that's for sure, though the economic impact of 9/11 would turn out to be closer to hiccup than earthquake.

But there were other costs, so much harder to tabulate. After all, Americans were not just hurt, but hurting. We had been robbed of something that seemed quite real (if you didn't happen to live in the vicinity of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City), something missing from the lives of so many others on this planet -- a sense of living in a safe and secure world. And the thieves had a Hollywood-inspired sense of spectacle; they were scenario producers who, with finances hardly suitable for a film noir, created the look of a large-budget extravaganza (of a sort Americans had long been familiar with in which towering infernos blazed, atom bombs went off, and volcanoes erupted in urban downtowns). They managed to mix "conventional" weaponry -- airplanes (that is, combustible fuel), box cutters, and mace -- into a brew that, whether by plan or simply luck, had the apocalyptic look of a weapon of mass destruction. Because the damage at the Pentagon didn't have that look, it never quite qualified for full membership in the 9/11 experience. On the other hand, the spot where the Twin Towers collapsed was instantly and universally dubbed "Ground Zero," a term previously reserved for the place where an atomic test or, in the case of two Japanese cities, atomic bombs went off.

Imagine, then, pushing that pause button just after the damage was done but before the "response" could begin; then look -- with as cool an eye as you can -- at the damage, wildly outsized compared to the group initiating it, but limited and not world-ending in the least (certainly not in a week in which our President estimated that 30,000 Iraqis, "more or less," had already died in the war he launched). As with the most successful terror attacks, the truly outsized thing was the response provoked. After all, a Serbian nationalist with a pistol was quite capable of assassinating an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but not of causing World War I. Only major powers could have done that.

Most Americans responded not to al-Qaeda, but to a terrifying vision of world's end and to headlines that indicated another Pearl Harbor had occurred, that we had been attacked by a new Evil Empire. Unfortunately, that vision and the feeling that our very Greatness had been assaulted fit all too comfortably with the apocalyptic religious and political visions -- world dominating and world-ending -- that lay close to the hearts, minds, and long-range plans of the tiny group then running an adrift administration for the Earth's only superpower. In the endless rites that would follow as the President launched his "Global War on Terror," we would seek a variety of roles expansive enough to suit a wounded but globe-bestriding colossus. We would become the planet's Greatest Victim, Greatest Survivor, and Greatest Dominator, leaving only the role of Greatest Evildoer up for grabs.

In the process, the horrific but actual scale of the damage would disappear. It no longer mattered that the attacking group had been relatively small, limited in its means (hence, four years without an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist incident in the U.S.), and massive only in its luck and daring -- abetted by the fact that the Bush administration was looking for nothing like such an attack, despite that CIA briefing handed to George on a lazy Crawford August day -- "Bin Laden determined to strike in US" -- and so many other clues.

Over four years later, a question of costs naturally arises from Gitmo-ized, Patriot-Act-ified, Homeland-Security-ificated America, from the country of more than two thousand dead and more than sixteen thousand wounded, from the perspective of a war of choice that has taken at least $250- 281 billion in chump change through fiscal year 2005. Our world has been damaged in so many ways, many still not fully apparent, and one question is: Who made us pay the price? What did they do to us and what did we do to ourselves? Or put another way, how much of the costs of 9/11 were costs of choice?

The Costs of an Imperial Presidency

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."

Lost in the Hills of America

The anthrax attacks of 2001 are now so out of memory that it's hard to recall the panic and fear caused by the appearance of those first envelopes, spilling deadly powder and containing threatening letters. But according to a LexisNexis search, between Oct. 4 and Dec. 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times with "anthrax" in the headline. In that same period, 238 such stories appeared in the Washington Post. That's the news equivalent of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror.

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