The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11

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

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[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.”]

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 $250281 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.

Looked at with a cool eye, this buried nightmare could be seen as the more threatening of the two attacks that year. The 9/11 assaults were, of course, vastly more costly in lives — almost 3,000 dead against just 5 from anthrax inhalation. On the other hand, the al-Qaeda strike only simulated a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack. You had to use some sci-fi-style imagining — and perhaps your knowledge that the old Soviet Cold War weapons labs and arsenals were now ill-tended and leaking material — to conjure up a situation in which Osama and crew might get their hands on a real version of the same. (The administration, of course, did exactly this — from Attorney General Ashcroft’s sudden announcement in Moscow of the arrest of Jose (“dirty-bomb”) Padilla to those Iraqi mushroom clouds that went off rhetorically over American cities in speeches by the National Security Adviser, the President, the Vice President, and other top officials before we launched our invasion of Iraq.

With the anthrax killer, no sci-fi imaginings were necessary. He (she, them) used an actual weapon of mass destruction — highly refined anthrax, the Ames strain that almost certainly fell out of the not-so-perfectly guarded American Cold War weapons labs. And then, after the series of postal attacks ended, the anthrax killer(s) remained at large not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but somewhere in the United States — with no evidence that the supply of anthrax had been used up. Who needs to imagine al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” here in the U.S., when you have such a live wire in the neighborhood?

Keep in mind that visions of anthrax-like weaponry would soon mobilize a nation in fear and hysteria around orange alerts and duct tape, smallpox-inoculations and finally a war lest any of this stuff, or anything faintly like it, drip out of the hands of Saddam Hussein and into those of terrorists heading our way. And yet, by early 2002, the first WMD attack in the U.S. was already slipping out of the news and drifting from memory. Here was the stuff of a terrifying made-for-TV movie or simply a trailer for the end of the world. It should have been unforgettable.

Had the anthrax attacks been — as the threatening letters, ominously dated “9/11/01,” that accompanied them implied — the work of an Islamic terrorist group, we would probably still be talking about it — and we would have no control group to measure 9/11 against. But 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.

September 11, 2002 rolled around amid weeks of ceremonies and rites, interviews with survivors, and memorial articles galore, while TV shows and books poured out. But where were the survivor interviews with those victimized by the anthrax killer(s)? Where were the books, the dramas, the movies, the TV shows? Four years later, the victims and heroes of 9/11 are still being written about; their “sacred” ground in New York is still being bitterly fought over, but when was the last time you saw anything about the victims or the heroes — mainly postal workers — of the anthrax attacks?

Within the last year, the ongoing investigation of the case has, according to the Washington Post, been significantly downsized. The number of FBI agents assigned to it has dropped from 31 to 21 and postal inspectors from 13 to 9. Many of those remaining are now said to be “in the process of taking inventory. The FBI and postal inspectors have spent months piecing together a voluminous internal report that will review the scope of the investigation?” It has “cold case, dead file” written all over it.

When it comes to costs, according to the Post, “at least 17 post offices and public office buildings were contaminated. Including cleanup costs, an FBI document put the damage in excess of $1 billion.” And that doesn’t account for the more subtle costs such as the role the attacks played in panicking Congress into an invasion of Iraq. Would the administration’s various bizarre fears and alarms about the dangers to us of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have had such a realistic ring to them if our representatives hadn’t actually experienced a bioweapons attack? It should have been unforgettable, but by some mysterious process that has yet to be considered, the attacks were, in a sense, “disappeared.”

A Terror War of Choice

If, as an editor of a major newspaper, you were to draw a single conclusion from this horrifying episode, it might be: Despite what we’ve heard, the greatest WMD danger to Americans comes not from impoverished Third World or rickety Middle Eastern rogue states, but from the arsenals and weapons labs of the two former Cold War superpowers. But nothing in the media coverage since then has indicated anything of the sort. While, prewar, reporters prowled Iraqi nuclear facilities, wrote major pieces on Iraq’s “Dr. Germ,” and brought down whole forests of trees in the service of WMD programs at Iraq’s Tuwaitha or North Korea’s Yongbyan, or on gassed dogs in Afghanistan and the Iranian bomb that also wasn’t, the Soviet and American weapons labs, the Soviet and American Dr. Germs, the Ames anthrax strain, and the anthrax killer hardly took out a tree or two.

When was the last time you read a major report on the state of American biowarfare work? When was the last time you encountered a significant story about the weapons labs at Fort Dietrich in suburban Maryland where the Ames strain was evidently first researched or the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah where it was produced and tested? How much attention has been given to recent contracts linked to Dugway that signal a desire on the part of the U.S. military to “buy large quantities of anthrax, in a controversial move that is likely to raise questions over its commitment to treaties designed to limit the spread of biological weapons”? When was the last time you read an article on whether the Homeland Security Department or the Pentagon is attending to the potential dangers of the American WMD arsenal? How much attention has gone into the decrepit system for locking down Russian WMD stocks? The odd news piece, nothing more. And while this administration spends about a billion dollars a week on its war in Iraq, it has hardly had the will or interest to raise the few billion dollars a year needed to help lock-down the Russian arsenal. Imagine that. If, of course, the President had chosen to launch his “war” on terror against the anthrax killers, this might have been our top priority.

Since September 11, 2001, weapons of mass destruction have been dealt with purely as a danger from the peripheries, not as a heartland issue. In fact, the Bush administration has successfully focused all our WMD attention and fears out there, not in here. The Iranian bomb — at best, years away according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate — has been the singular focus of the world’s attention; while the nuclearized “global strike force” the Pentagon has been preparing for future use in Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere is barely attended to.

Now, here’s the interesting thing: Because this administration had its eyes set on the Middle East from the beginning, it essentially chose its terror war from column A (the September 11th attacks), not column B (the anthrax attacks, once it became clear that they were connected not to al-Qaeda but the American arsenal). Hence our control group. Here, for instance, is a very partial list of actions not taken by this administration in relation to the anthrax attacks:

Our President never swore to get the killer(s), “dead or alive.” He kept no profile of the possible killer or killers in his desk drawer, so he could cross him/them off when caught. The President, Vice President, National Security Adviser, and others did not warn the public and Congress regularly of the possibility of “clouds of anthrax” being released in our major cities (though this had, after a fashion, already happened) even as they were issuing dire warnings about fantasy Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs that might at any time spray biological or chemical weapons over east coast cities. (Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because “I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.”) No American planes swooped down to bomb the weapons labs of Fort Dietrich or the Dugway Proving Grounds; the only suspect publicly identified, while hounded for a period, was never declared an “enemy combatant.” No one seized and rendered him; no CIA agents swept him from the street, cut off his clothes, shot him up with drugs, slipped him into an orange jumpsuit, whisked him onto an unregistered plane, and took him to a secret prison in Egypt or elsewhere to have “the truth” beaten or waterboarded or otherwise tortured out of him. Nor did he end up incarcerated in Guantanamo for years, trial-less and beyond the reach of the courts. Quite the opposite, Hatfill is suing former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department, and others for violating his constitutional rights and the New York Times for defaming him.

Nor, in the wake of the anthrax attacks, was any kind of global war declared on the killer or killers, or troops deployed anywhere. In fact, no drastic actions of any sort were taken. In the wake of the attack, the post office became more careful; U.S. weapons labs were assumedly better secured; and remind me what else occurred in response to one of the most dangerous attacks in our history? Beyond the dead and injured, the panic of the moment, and the monumental costs of cleaning up congressional offices, newsrooms, and post offices, what were the costs?

As it turns out, the Bush administration acted in response to 9/11 in every wild and extraordinary way — and in response to the anthrax attacks in next to no way at all. Put the two together and what you can see is the degree to which the costs of 9/11, whether in Iraq or at home, are the responsibility not of the attackers, whose damaging acts were violent in the extreme, spectacular, and limited, but the Bush administration.

Embedded World

It’s an irony of our world that neither Osama bin Laden, nor the anthrax killer(s) have been apprehended. By now, bin Laden has, in fact, disappeared into something like the kind of anonymity the anthrax killer had from the beginning. Whether in the mountains of Afghanistan or the exurbs of America, the search for the perpetrators of the two greatest terrorist attacks in our history — the Twin Terrors — was not expanded until success was achieved, but downsized. When it came to the hunt for bin Laden, this happened way back in 2002 when the Bush administration began switching key personnel out of Afghanistan to prepare for its long-desired invasion of Iraq. Both are now cold cases.

You might think that this administration, supposedly dedicated above all else to protecting the United States from terrorism in its newly formed Homeland Security State, would have devoted resources above all else to the task of implacably hunting down these particular terrorists, wherever they might be; that dead-ends met would have only led to redoubled efforts. That would have been, if not a “war” on terrorism, then at least a police action of note. Instead, with thousands of Americans and Iraqis now dead and an actual weapon of mass destruction still potentially loose in our land, the inability to focus all resources on real terrorists and bring them to justice seems but another cost of George Bush’s “war on terror.”

The saddest story is this: If tomorrow, George Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts were somehow tossed out on their ears — call it indictment, impeachment, or something else — what they, not Osama bin Laden or the anthrax terrorists will have cost us, in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will still be incalculable. Among the greatest costs will be the way administration officials used the 9/11 attacks (and buried the anthrax ones) in order to breach so many levees of our world.

What they have embedded in our lives since 9/11 — from Northcom to our newest pinheaded giant bureaucracy, the Homeland Security Department, from the Patriot Act to ever increasing domestic spying by the Pentagon and the National Security Agency among other organizations — will be with us long after they are gone. Just imagine a political change of fortunes in our country in which the Democrats take Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Then ask yourself a single question: What will the Democrats do with Guantánamo. Unfortunately, you already know the answer.

Now, let that pause button go and watch not just the Twin Towers but so much else in our world tumble down one more time.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.

This piece first appeared at


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