Infected By Fear

An anthrax epidemic is sweeping the United States, but the symptoms aren't exactly what you'd expect. Peter Pringle reports on America's latest fear fad
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The Independent Culture
CASE ONE: ON Christmas Eve last year, 200 people were doing their last-minute shopping at a department store in Palm Desert, California, when police surrounded the building and herded everyone into a parking lot, ordering them to remove their clothes before hosing them down with a bleach solution. An anonymous caller to 911 had claimed that spores of the deadly anthrax bacteria had been released into the air in the store. After carrying out tests, the police concluded that the call was a hoax and the shoppers were allowed home. Two: on Boxing Day, 800 young people were partying at the Glass House Club, a dance hall in Pomona, near Los Angeles, when police burst in. No one was allowed to leave the building. Another 911 caller had warned of anthrax spores in the air-conditioning system. For four hours the police searched for evidence of the bacteria. This call, too, was found to be a hoax. Three: a week later, students and staff at a high school in Anaheim, California, were placed in quarantine for three hours while police dealt with another (false) anthrax alert. Four: on 14 January, a public library in Oregon was closed after yet another. Five: two 14-year-old boys from Indiana were suspended from their school after plotting to send their teacher an envelope containing dried cinnamon, which they claimed in the accompanying note was anthrax spores. They had hatched the plan in an attempt to escape a test.

Anthrax has become a fad in America. The incidents described are not isolated: hoax calls about deadly biological agents - usually anthrax - are being made all over the country. Last year, there were about 50 anthrax hoaxes, and the rate is increasing. So far, only one suspect has been arrested. He is a 53-year-old accountant who was accused of trying to delay his appearance at a bankruptcy hearing by calling the courthouse and claiming that anthrax had been released into the air-conditioning system.

Threats such as these often result in the federal disaster teams known as HAZMATs (for hazardous materials) being sent running for their shiny protective suits and gas masks. The hoaxes are not only disruptive, they are extremely expensive. Testing the air and decontaminating buildings and people can cost as much as half a million dollars per hoax.

Police and public health officials claim to be so confounded by the hoaxes that they hark back to the good old days when the worst they had to deal with was a straightforward bomb scare. "Anthrax has really taken off nationwide," says an FBI spokesman, John Hoos. "We don't know why, but it's one of those sexy terms of the Nineties." Another FBI agent sighs, " I think we're dealing with nuts out there who are watching too much of The X Files." In fact, the origins of this epidemic, if it can be termed such, are easy to trace. If cranks and cultists are using anthrax as a terror hoax, it's because they've been told by the media that it's the greatest threat to American security since Soviet nuclear missiles. After the Gulf War in 1990, at which time most Americans probably thought it was a brand of bathroom cleaner, anthrax was blasted as the poor man's weapon of mass destruction. Alarmists have suggested that it would be ideal for use by mad cultists/international terrorists/rogue dictators (delete as appropriate). Beached by the end of the Cold War, planners in the Pentagon and military think-tanks sniffed around for potential new threats: in the annals of threat politics, international terrorism has an enduring ring to it. The media, too, cast about for bogeymen and found the former Soviet Union's rusting biological weapons labs and penniless scientists, whom it judged potential aiders and abetters to the new bioterrorists.

Easily transported; unpleasant symptoms leading to certain death; tiny quantities sufficient to wipe out entire cities: the sicko - or screenwriter - appeal of biological weapons was obvious. The public has been bombarded with horrific descriptions of what these agents do to you. Anthrax spores, found naturally in diseased sheep and cattle, can live for years in the soil, and can be transmitted on the wind or by skin contact. Victims develop a high fever and large sores before suffocating to death.

Such gruesome detail lends itself to fiction, and Americans have been treated to an onslaught of novels and television shows featuring futuristic biogenetically engineered microbes that have the potential to destroy all life on the planet. One example is The Cobra Event, a novel by Richard Preston about a germ attack on Manhattan involving a mixture of smallpox and cold viruses. Evidently, it was when President Clinton read this book that he started to push for the stockpiling of vaccines against germ weapons.

Each time Saddam Hussein (whose scientists, it has emerged, received at least one of their original sources of anthrax from an American biological repository in Maryland) refuses to allow UN inspectors to view his arsenal, anthrax is once again all over the news, and fears are fuelled. The politicians, too, have been doing their fair share of scaremongering: during one of the recent Iraq crises, Bill Cohen, the Secretary of Defense, appeared on television holding a bag of sugar and telling viewers that an equivalent amount of anthrax could kill half the population of Washington DC. Under the threat of another war with Iraq, all 2.4 million American troops are being vaccinated against anthrax. In addition, a whole vocabulary has now grown up around biological terrorism. Experts speak of "bioweapons", "biocriminals" and of our new, dangerous era of "post-modern terrorism". Anthrax in this lexicon is a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), and according to US government officials it's not a question of if it will be used, but when.

So, hoaxers aside, America is taking the threat very seriously. The nation is now spending $7bn a year on defending itself against chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. Any new government project to do with terrorism goes directly to the top of the pile in Congress. The Pentagon has ordered numerous devices for sniffing out nerve gases and deadly germs; a Navy gadget, known as TagMan, can detect in half an hour whether a sample of liquid contains any of several known biological agents. National Guard units, whose normal duties involve dealing with floods and hurricanes, are being retrained as HAZMAT teams in an arrangement between the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So many different sectors are now shoring up the nation's defences against mega- terrorism, says the government auditor, that it's hard to keep track of the money, let alone know whether it's being spent wisely.

In 1972, President Nixon renounced biological weaponry in the Biological Weapons Convention, which, in an effort to prevent other countries from taking them up, prohibited their development, production and stockpiling. The biological weapons arsenal in Sixties America had been the world's largest and most sophisticated, with 400 biological agents tested, 17 toxic enough for use on the battlefield.

Now, few deny that biological terrorism is a risk; but the speed at which it has come to be regarded as the main threat to US security is as unnerving as the threat itself. And the risk in rushing to meet any new threat by creating new departments of counter-espionage and counter-weapons is that the old practice of deterrence through international treaties may take a back seat.

"CATASTROPHIC TERRORISM" screamed a headline in the November edition of the journal Foreign Affairs. The three distinguished authors, John Deutch, a former director of the CIA, Ashton Carter, an ex-Pentagon assistant secretary and Philip Zelikow, a former member of the National Security Council, declared with certainty that "the danger of weapons of mass destruction being used [in acts of terrorism] against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962." Any act of catastrophic terrorism, they went on to say, could have the effect of Pearl Harbor, dividing America into a "before" and "after".

The thrust of the article was to call for a grand reorganisation of the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI in order to eliminate the agency overlaps and gaps between "foreign" and "domestic" terrorism. The authors want to pool intelligence, create new Catastrophic Terrorism Response Offices (dubbed CTROs), and trim the present two dozen agencies with shopping lists for vaccines, gas sniffers and protective clothing down to one, the Pentagon's Defence Department.

While all this goes on, people are losing sight of the fact that, since 1980, the number of Americans killed by terrorists most years has been fewer than 10. (Of course, that toll can suddenly jump. Last summer, for example, the car bombs at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 260 people. Before that, in 1995, the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building claimed 168 lives.) Furthermore, there have been only two serious uses of biological weapons this century. The first was during the Second World War, when the invading Japanese Imperial Army experimented with deadly bacteria on Chinese prisoners of war. In 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted to disperse anthrax spores, but no one was killed.

RICHARD PRESTON, author of The Cobra Event, wrote a non-fiction account of the rise of "bioterrorism", which was published in the New Yorker in 1997. In that article, Kanatjan Alibekov, the Russian who had been second in command of the weapons section of the Soviet biological weapons programme, appeared for the first time in the press. He had arrived in America in 1992, a year after the fall of communism, and changed his name to Ken Alibek. In Preston's article, he gave details about Biopreparat, the huge plants built for producing biological weapons in Russia. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention had a loophole: the treaty did not prevent countries from building and keeping in reserve facilities for producing such weapons. This is what the Russians had done. Alibek went further, and claimed that the Soviet plants had been used to produce tons of anthrax, some of which had been genetically engineered to disable the available vaccines. In addition, he claimed that the Russians had experimented with deadly cocktails of smallpox mixed with the Ebola virus, which causes internal haemorrhaging, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, a virus of the brain.

Various scientific experts were dismissive of Alibek's claims. Dr Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the US Army medical research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who was one of Alibek's original debriefers, told the New Yorker, "His talk about chimeras [mixtures] of Ebola is sheer fantasy, in my opinion."

IN THEIR article on catastrophic terrorism, Deutch and co mention the proposal by Professor Matthew Meselson, a Harvard University biochemist, and Philip Heymann, his law professor colleague, of an international convention making it a crime for individuals to engage in the production of biological or chemical weapons. The idea would be to deter corporations from assisting in the development of such weapons by making the scientists or CEOs liable for prosecution. If such a treaty had existed and been supported by the US in the Eighties, when Iraq was using poison gas and developing biological weapons, the suppliers and advisers on whom Saddam depended could have been brought to trial.

For a reprieve from the drumbeat warning of the New Threat, one can turn to the autumn issue of American Foreign Policy magazine. In an essay entitled " The Great Terrorism Scare", Ehud Sprinzak, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, shouts down the voices of doom. The concept of chaos-breeding fanatics in the wake of the Cold War, he says, is simply not supported by the evidence of the past three decades. "Despite the lurid rhetoric, a massive terrorist attack [with weapons of mass destruction] is ... not even likely," he writes. "Terrorists wish to convince us that they are capable of striking from anywhere at any time, but there is really no chaos. Terrorism involves predictable behavior, and the vast majority of terrorist organizations can be identified well in advance."

But such advice generally falls on deaf ears. In last year's military budget, the Republicans forced an addition of several million dollars for anti-terrorism projects, insisting that America was unprepared to meet potential threats. One thing is certain, then. Come Election 2000, when the politicians are coaxing votes from the good citizens of the United States, anthrax is sure to be high on the agenda.