Garrett: How anthrax divided America

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(Credit: Illustration by Ryan Inzana)

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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.


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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.

If 9/11 marked the single most powerful moment of American unity since Pearl Harbor, the anthrax mailings ushered the opposite, splintering Americans into isolated individuals forced to make their own threat calculations, and increasingly distrustful of the insights, advice and actions of their government.

On Sept. 12, 2001, nearly every American was ready to swallow personal political, cultural and religious views to stand together behind flag and president, in defense of the nation. By Nov. 12, 2001, we were a different nation, deeply divided by individual fears. Government could not tell us accurately who we should be afraid of, how fearful we ought to be, what types of protection we should give our children, or who or what might be the next target.

A Newsday reporter at the time, I was warned that I was a potential anthrax target. Mailroom operations at Newsday were significantly overhauled -- as they were at media organizations across the country. And our readers had their own concerns. Every Long Island resident from Great Neck to Montauk had to make new decisions about once-routine matters -- whether to drive the LIE to Manhattan or fly on a plane out of JFK. They wondered whether to keep the kids home from school one day, buy duct tape to seal unspecified dangers out of their homes, leave stacks of mail unopened, hire special personnel to handle company correspondence, or sit alone at the far end of a Long Island Rail Road car, lest another passenger be sporting a suicide belt.

Throughout that fall the New York tristate region and Washington reeled from one anthrax mystery after another. The three primary television networks; the New York Post; postal distribution centers in New Jersey, Manhattan and the Washington area; postal workers; the offices of Sens. Tom Daschle and Russ Feingold; and a long list of federal buildings and mail distribution centers were found contaminated. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was pulled out of a World Series game in Phoenix, where the Yankees were battling the Arizona Diamondbacks, and rushed secretly back to Gotham amid word of anthrax spores at City Hall. Thousands of people in the region took Ciprofloxacin as an antibiotic precaution against the powdery killer.

Just when New Yorkers started to relax in late October, a Manhattan hospital worker mysteriously died of inhaled anthrax. Kathy Nguyen's demise ignited another round of anxiety, as inspectors determined that her spore inhalation may have occurred on her daily ride on the No. 6 train between her home in the Bronx and her midtown job. When just before Thanksgiving, 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren died in rural Connecticut -- the presumed victim of a minute number of spores that had escaped their lethal envelope confines during mail sorting and clung to some object delivered to her home -- Americans cried, "Enough!"

As comedian Tina Fey put it on "Saturday Night Live" that week, "On Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a terrorism warning, asking all Americans to be on high alert this week. Then on Friday, he announced that the period of high alert would be extended indefinitely. I think I speak for all Americans when I say, 'I can't be any more alert than I already am, OK? I'm opening my mail with salad tongs. I take my passport in the shower with me.' "

The real cost of the anthrax mailings is more than the five lives lost; more than the estimated $60 billion expended since on bioterrorism preparedness; more than the restructuring of health departments all across the nation. The true price America paid for the anthrax mailings is seen 10 years later in our state of deep division as a people, so grave that government seems nonfunctional as the world descends into deep economic despair.

The synergized impact of 9/11, anthrax, and innumerable hoaxes and genuine security alarms throughout the fall of 2001 drove Americans to a position of fearfulness that led us not only to fret about al-Qaida and suicide bombs, but also about our mail, our neighbors, people who "look weird," anybody that thinks or believes differently than ourselves, and ultimately our own government.

The elimination of the World Trade Center and more than 2,500 lives within drew Americans together in a collective cry of patriotism and horror. But the incompetence, confusion and opportunistic lying that unfolded with the anthrax spores -- raising the volume of drumbeats for war -- shattered national solidarity, driving every individual to his or her preferred corner of the American political arena.

When Americans wring their hands as members of Congress spit out the word "compromise" as if it were the vilest term in the English language, they should look to the nation's innocence of August 2001, versus its terrified divisiveness by January 2002, to understand how we reached this sad state. We won't get out of this mess and restore the credibility of governance until we collectively and individually examine how 2001 transformed us into a nation of individualistic, scared souls.

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