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How Anthrax Divided America

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
October 13, 2011


Last month the nation paused to mark the somber 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This month brings another dark memorial, though one that will be much less discussed: It has been 10 years since the anthrax attacks.

Five people were killed by anthrax-spore contamination of mail. But the anthrax mailings' true impact is more than the number of tragically murdered lives; it is the episode's contribution to the climate of fear, paranoia and increasing American disunity that was the real legacy of 2001.

The country wasn't successfully mobilized to combat terrorism and wage two wars solely on the basis of 9/11: The Bush administration sought to connect the mailed spores to Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. The American people did not support creation of the Department of Homeland Security just because of 9/11; it was the anthrax mailings that sent Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge storming down White House halls shouting, "I need scientists!" We have not acceded to massive video surveillance and inconvenient searches and security simply because of what transpired on that clear blue September morning.

The iconic 9/11 events have proved the more convenient foil for political use. Nearly the entire world population that witnessed the events on television or in person that day shared a collective sense of revulsion, disgust, anger and outrage. We were, as a global village, in a moment of time-and-emotion synchrony.

It is far less convenient for political leaders to recall what followed on the heels of those attacks, signaled by the Oct. 5, 2001, death of Sun tabloid photo-editor Robert K. Stevens, a Florida victim of anthrax. Every aspect of the anthrax mailings -- spread out over multiple targets and a time span of more than two months -- was fraught with controversy, failures, misinformation, deliberate obfuscation, poor government decision-making, tragedy and even hysteria.

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