Deadly spores, crazy scares: a world on the edge of panic

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The Hollywood horror movie that all of the United States found itself living when two jets slammed into the twin towers on 11 September continues to play with a storyline that seems less believable and more frightening from day to to day. The latest? Deadly germ spores floating in the US Capitol building.

President Bush wants the public to focus on his noble mission to drive terrorism from the caves of Afghanistan. But if Americans are focusing more on matters at home, they have good reason.

The country is gripped not by the briefings of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, on how many bombs have been dropped on Kabul, but by one single word: anthrax.

Anthrax has a special power to spread panic. News footage of investigators in moonsuits and gas-masks being deployed across the land will have that effect. And now it is taking grip around the globe. From Honolulu to Paris, Berlin and Melbourne, Australia, authorities yesterday were rushing to investigate suspicious packages and unidentified powders.

In Berlin, it happened at the Chancellory itself. Just after midday, police sealed off the mail room of the offices of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after being alerted to a white powder in a package. It was being tested last night. In Paris, similar steps were taken in three different public buildings, including the Finance Ministry, and 30 people were rushed to hospitals to be checked for contamination.

Those cases may turn out to be nothing more than scares. In the US, however, 13 people have so far been exposed to anthrax in three different states – Florida, New York and Nevada. Now Washington DC can be added to the list.

It was on 4 October that Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the headquarters of American Media, a publisher of supermarket tabloids, was diagnosed with anthrax in southern Florida. Alarm bells rang, but not very loudly, even when he died. Then, last Friday, public anxiety exploded. A woman who worked for Tom Brokaw had got anthrax. In Manhattan.

And in Nevada, spores were found in a letter postmarked Malaysia and sent to a local office of Microsoft.

That this is the work of a terrorist or terrorists nobody disputes any more. So far, no decisive link has been made to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida network. Whoever they are, they know how to go for the soft underbelly of a once complacent, now fearful, America. Mr Brokaw said yesterday he had handled the threatening letter that contained the contaminated material himself, and was taking antibiotics.

Mr Brokaw is an icon. He is one of a trio of anchormen who have been delivering the news to Americans on television for ever, almost. His peers are Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS. All three represent the reasoned and reassuring voice of this country. It is ironic. People with a grievances normally woo the media for attention. These people are attacking it.

First it was American Media, an outfit with big commercial significance but little serious clout. The US didn't pay much heed. Then it was Brokaw at NBC in New York, and everyone took notice. But yesterday, the terrorists appeared to have outdone themselves. They had sent their deadly contagion into the very heart of the country's political power. The office of the leader of the US Senate, Tom Daschle.

As if to add the the drama, it took the President himself to break this latest shock to the American public. The White House, of course, seems like the only place left that terrorists have not penetrated.

The public barely know how to react. Activities that once seemed routine – getting on aeroplanes, working in skyscrapers, opening mail – trigger nerve-tearing unease.

The NBC case caused New Yorkers to swamp their doctors in search of antibiotics, notably Cipro, ignoring pleas by officials not to do so. Bayer, the maker of Cipro, has promised to step up production and reopen a recently closed factory in Germany.

The White House has meanwhile asked Congress to approve $1.5bn in additional spending to prepare the nation for a possible bio-terror emergency. Almost half that sum will be spent on stockpiling enough antibiotics to treat 12 million people. Members of Congress are almost certain to approve the spending.

Anthrax scares continued to pop up worldwide. Bio-terrorist investigators were deployed to Rio de Janeiro airport, where a Lufthansa jumbo jet was cleared after a powder was found under a seat. In Hawaii, hazardous-materials teams were called to the Honolulu and Lihue airports following the discovery of white powder at both locations.

Who is behind this new horror? President Bush came as close as anyone to saying it out loud: "There may be some possible link. We have no hard data yet but it is clear that Mr bin Laden is an evil man."

But some experts urge caution. They say that other groups or individualsmay be taking advantage of the current crisis. Theories multiply. Could this be the work of Saddam Hussein, who is known to have stockpiled anthrax and put it in warheads. Or the Ku Klux Klan. Is this just some loony at work?

Only one thing is clear. Somebody has America – and plenty of other people around the world – very scared. In Manhattan, outright panic may only be one more incident away.