American Pravda: The Forgotten Anthrax Attacks

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by Run Unz, The Unz Review:

We just recently passed the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks, the greatest terrorist strike in human history and an event whose political reverberations dominated world politics for most of the two decades that followed. Our Iraq War was soon triggered as a consequence, a disastrous decision that dramatically transformed the political map of the Middle East and eventually led to the death or displacement of many millions, while our failing twenty-year retaliatory occupation of Afghanistan only finally came to a humiliating end in 2021.

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American society also underwent enormous changes, with a considerable erosion of our traditional civil liberties. On the fiscal side, by 2008 Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and his collaborators had conservatively estimated that the total accrued cost of our military response had exceeded $3 trillion, a figure that later studies raised to $6.4 trillion by 2019, or more than $50,000 per American household.

In the days after those dramatic events, the images of the burning World Trade Center towers and their sudden collapse were endlessly replayed on our television screens, accompanied by the near-universal verdict that American life would forever be changed by the massive terrorist assault that had taken place. But a tiny handful of skeptics argued otherwise.

The Internet was then in its infancy, with the initial dot-com bubble already deflating, while Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school and social media did not yet exist. But one of the earliest pioneers of web-based journalism was Mickey Kaus, a former writer at The New Republic, who had recently begun publishing short, informal bits of punditry one or more times each day on what he called his “web log,” a term soon contracted to “blog.” Along with his fellow TNR alumnus Andrew Sullivan, Kaus became one of our first bloggers, and was inclined to take contrarian positions on major issues.

Thus, even as a stunned world gaped at the smoking ruins of the WTC towers and the talking heads on cable declared that American life would never be the same again, Kaus took a very different position. I remember that not long after the attacks, he argued that our cable-driven 24-hour news cycle had so drastically shrunk the popular attention-span that coverage of the massive terrorist attacks would soon begin to bore most Americans. As a result, he boldly predicted that by Thanksgiving, the 9/11 attacks would have become a rapidly-fading memory, probably displaced by the latest celebrity-scandal or high-profile crime, and that the long-term impact upon American public life would be minimal.

Obviously, Kaus’ forecast was wrong, but I think it never had a fair test. Very soon after he wrote those words, our national attention was suddenly riveted by an entirely new wave of terrorism, as the offices of leading media and political figures in Manhattan, DC, and Florida began receiving envelopes laden with lethal anthrax spores together with short notes praising Allah and promising death to America.

Although nearly all Americans had seen the destruction of the WTC towers on their television screens and become outraged at that attack on our country, probably few had felt personally threatened by those September attacks. But now during October, the dreadful spectre of biological warfare moved to the forefront of popular concerns, staying there for many months.

Although those anthrax mailings had targeted particular high-profile individuals and the letters were tightly sealed, the media soon revealed that rough handling at postal centers during the automatic sorting process had caused the tiny seeds of death to leak through the pores of the envelope paper, contaminating both the postal buildings and the other mail being processed. As a result, some of the subsequent deaths were those of random individuals who had received an accidentally-contaminated letter, seeming to place all Americans at terrible risk. Moreover, despite all the massive visual destruction inflicted on 9/11, only about 3,000 Americans had died, but our political and media figures soon warned that terrorists could use anthrax or smallpox to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of our citizens. Indeed, the media reported that during June 2001 just a few months earlier, the government’s Dark Winter simulation exercise had suggested that over a million Americans could die in a smallpox attack unleashed by foreign terrorists.

According to early news reports, the anthrax in the letters had been highly weaponized using techniques far beyond the capabilities of al-Qaeda terrorists, therefore indicating a state sponsor. Numerous anonymous government sources stated that the deadly spores had been coated in bentonite, a compound long used by the Iraqis to enhance the lethality of their anthrax bombs, thereby directly fingering Saddam Hussein’s regime, and although those claims were later officially denied by the White House, large portions of the American public heard and believed them.

As the weeks went by, the FBI and most of the media declared that the anthrax had apparently come from our own domestic stockpiles and that the attacker was probably a lone domestic terrorist merely pretending to be an radical Islamicist, but much of the public never accepted this.

Indeed, a year later when Colin Powell made his famous presentation to the UN Security Council, attempting to justify America’s planned invasion of Iraq, he held up a small vial of white powder, explaining that even such a tiny quantity of anthrax spores could kill many tens of thousands of Americans. His public focus demonstrated the continuing resonance of the biological warfare attacks that our country had suffered more than a year earlier, and which many die-hard Americans still stubbornly believed had been a combined effort by al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

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