Since the first reports of anthrax cases in Florida, the question has been if Osama bin Laden is responsible. Many argue the seemingly unorganized and relatively ineffective attacks stand in marked contrast to the diligently planned and perfectly executed devastation of Sept. 11. If bin Laden wanted to mount a biological terror campaign, wouldn’t it be on a much grander scale?
The answer: Not necessarily. These critics are demonstrating thinking lodged in the framework of a conventional military campaign, not a terrorist one. In a conventional campaign the death of one person and the infection of a half-dozen others would be monumental failure. But in a terrorism campaign, results are measured by secondary effects, not primary ones.
The purpose of terror is to cause fear — massive death is not a prerequisite. And today, more Americans are fearful of falling victim to a terrorist attack then they were after the attacks of Sept. 11. After all, the importance and size of New York City and Washington, D.C., are far greater than the size and or importance of the vast majority of locales in the United States. But when anthrax is showing up in places such as Boca Raton, Fla., or Reno, Nev., suddenly the rest of country feels it could be next.
Moreover, the F.B.I. certainly does not have the resources to deal with all of the 2,300 anthrax reports it has received since the beginning of October. Nor do local law enforcement agencies. Here in Madison the Hazardous Waste Removal team could only respond to two of the four reported cases in Madison last weekend. This massive influx of anthrax reports has a debilitating effect on these agencies’ ability to quickly identify and respond to a real biological attack.
The reality is the chance of being exposed to anthrax, if it continues to be dispersed in such a haphazard fashion, is infinitesimal. But the chance of a nation-wide panic is much greater, and that is why, as a terrorist attack, anthrax has been a huge success.
The other argument used by those who think bin Laden is not responsible for the anthrax attacks is that the attacks were merely copycat efforts, perhaps by domestic terrorists seeking to capitalize on American fears.
However, these critics are missing a crucial point. Anthrax is not cheap, and it is not easy to make.
Anthrax is a naturally occurring substance that can be grown, but it is much more difficult to turn it into a weapon. According to an intelligence source cited by the British newspaper “The Guardian,” anthrax spores “only begin to become effective as a biological weapon if they can be made the right size to breathe in ? that is extremely difficult ? most spores are either too big to be suspended in air, or too small to lodge on the lining of the lungs.”
In other words, the anthrax is only useful as a weapon if it is in powder form (which has been the situation in all of the confirmed cases thus far). But, as the article goes on to note, “making powder needs repeated washings in huge centrifuges, followed by intensive drying, which requires sealed environments. The technology would cost millions.”
The truth is anthrax would simply not be available to some right-wing deranged domestic terrorist. Fertilizer in Ryder trucks is one thing. Very expensive and difficult-to-make biological weapons are another entirely.
And maybe that is why the critics are right. Maybe bin Laden is not ultimately responsible for the anthrax attacks. After all, while he certainly has the bankroll to pay for anthrax, it is doubtful the sensitive equipment needed to make it into a powder is sitting in some Afghan cave.
But there is an avowed enemy of the United States with a long history of supporting terrorism. Saddam Hussein has already demonstrated the technological capability to make anthrax and the willingness to use it by attacking his own population. He has long since reneged on a treaty allowing UN inspectors access to chemical weapons labs (not to mention potential nuclear labs), even though it has meant continued sanctions. Moreover, one of his diplomats was seen in the Czech Republic with the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack.
If the United States is going to fully prosecute this war on terror, they must not only confront bin Laden, almost certainly behind the recent anthrax attacks, but also Hussein, the only logical supplier.
The proper strategy is certainly unclear, and I do not have space to discuss the options. But if the Bush doctrine is going to differentiate itself from the Clinton policy of “firing a $10 million cruise missile into a $10 tent to hit a camel in the butt” (to quote President Bush), the two most egregious terrorists in world history must be addressed.
The alternative — living in fear and curtailing our liberties (i.e. the recent Senate bill) — is unacceptable.
Benjamin Thompson (bthomp[email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.