"The anthrax overreaction" 10/25
Oct 29, 2001 03:59 PST
Despite the title, this editorial actually argues that part of the
public is overreacting while governments are underreacting.
Since this was written, ABC has reported that bentonite was found in the
anthrax, and that Iraq is the only country that treats its anthrax with
bentonite (so the particles don't stick together and can float through
the air). The White House at first denied the ABC story than said that
the tests are not yet conclusive.
JERUSALEM POST NEWS & FEATURE SERVICE
OCTOBER 25, 2001
The anthrax overreaction
Terrorism is about making people feel vulnerable. The
terrorists know that for every person that they kill, they
can plant fear in the hearts of millions. This lopsided
ratio between actual casualties and fear sown is most
pronounced in the case of the latest scare: anthrax.
By turning four passenger aircraft into human-guided
missiles, the terrorists of September 11 have caused
millions of Americans to avoid aircraft altogether. Many
have also been avoiding high buildings, malls, and other
public places. Despite the need for vigilance and prudence,
much of this behavior is not rational.
It is most certainly safer to fly in America and most
other places today than it was before September 11, because
security on and around aircraft has been tightened
exponentially. There are grounds to fear that there will be
other terrorist attacks in the United States and elsewhere,
since the West is only now joining the fight against terror
in earnest and has a long way to go. But as the anthrax
incidents indicate, the next attack will probably take a
completely different form than that of September 11.
Preventing the next large-scale attack will take an
almost complete overhaul of US internal security agencies,
the hardest part being preventing terrorists from taking
advantage of America's freedoms and legal safeguards.
But it is important to distinguish between the role of
individuals confronting the threat of terrorism and that of
Though governments sometimes show signs of panic,
individuals tend to be overconcerned, while governments
remain too calm and wedded to business-as-usual.
It is not rational, for example, for the average
American or the average Israeli to fear receiving an
anthrax-laced letter. As Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel pointed out in
The Wall Street Journal, the chance of receiving such a
letter is about one in a billion, much less than the chance
of being struck by lightning and less than the risks faced
in driving one mile in a car.
The run on Cipro, one of a number of antibiotics that
can be used to treat anthrax, does not make sense and could
actually damage America's public health system. What does
make sense is for governments to take the real implications
of the anthrax mailings seriously.
The first step is to recognize, as President George W.
Bush has, that sending anthrax through the mail is
terrorism. The second is to face the fact that anthrax of
the kind that infected Senate employees and killed two
postal workers was likely produced by a government, not a
Richard Spertzel, who led the bioweapons inspections
by UNSCOM in Iraq, points out that producing the form that
can float through the air and cause inhalation anthrax is
"extremely difficult." Only five people in the US,
according to Spertzel, know how to produce it, and only
four countries have: the US, Britain, Russia, and Iraq.
The working hypothesis of any investigation, then, has
to be that fine powder that has killed and terrorized
Americans was produced in Iraq. Yet there seems to be a
decided reluctance to finger Iraq, or even to suggest the
possibility of state-sponsorship. A State Department
spokesman said that there is "no clear linkage" between the
anthrax found and Iraq, and homeland security chief Tom
Ridge said the anthrax was not "weaponized." But the fact
that the anthrax was in some cases inhaled shows that this
was not the work of amateurs.
As former CIA director James Woolsey points out, also
in The Wall Street Journal, "Government bureaucracies do
have a way of getting into comfortable ruts and staying
there through inertia." The rut the State Department and
the CIA are stuck in, according to Woolsey, is the "malady
of backward reasoning," whereby the investigation - or lack
of it - is driven by the desired conclusion that no state
If Western intelligence agencies are still shying away
from implicating Iraq in September 11 or the subsequent
anthrax terrorism, we are witnessing something much more
serious than the overconcern of the public.
While the threat of anthrax sent through the mail may
be exaggerated, the threat from full-scale biological,
chemical, or nuclear weapons is not. If Saddam Hussein was
involved in anti-American terror, as seems likely, he knows
he was and can see that the West is avoiding blaming him
for it. The lack of a systematic American response to major
terror attacks, such as the 1998 attacks on the US
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, led to September 11. The
reluctance to take on Saddam now may lead to even bolder
attacks in the future.
(c) Jerusalem Post