Ten Years Ago Today the Anthrax Nightmare Unfolded, and Globalized

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

On October 5, 2001 Robert K. Stevens lay dying in a Florida hospital, his entire body -- every organ and tissue -- besieged by anthrax toxins. Admitted to JFK Medical Center near West Palm Beach at 2:30 am on October 2nd, Stevens quickly fell unconscious, suffered a seizure, and spent the remainder of his life on a ventilator.

Fortunately, the infectious diseases expert summoned to examine Stevens was Dr. Larry Bush, a savvy physician that had undergone training in bioterrorism preparedness and was immediately suspicious that his patient’s killer was Bacillus anthracis. Also fortuitous, Bush sent pathology samples to Florida State lab expert Phillip Lee for confirmation -- one of a then-small number of microbiologists that had undergone special training from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in bioterrorism laboratory forensics.

By the time Stevens died Bush, Lee, and the CDC had all confirmed that he was suffering from anthrax infection caused by the so-called Ames strain of the bacteria -- a form commonly used in laboratory research. There was no way Stevens had acquired this dastardly infection naturally: At the very least the Sun tabloid photo editor was the victim of murder.

In the ten years since the 2001 anthrax mailings and the historic Amerithrax FBI investigation they spawned, the incidents have receded into history, rarely noted in discussions of 9/11 or "post-9/11 changes" in U.S. domestic and particularly foreign policy. Most of the transformations that have occurred and the military engagements spurred by the 2001 events are mistakenly ascribed solely to the specific events that transpired tragically on September 11, 2001. History fails to properly recall the fear and costs globally of the anthrax mailings, of their contribution to the atmosphere that led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In my years of research and writing, both as a journalist covering these events in 2001 and as author of I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM I chronicled a massive number of hoaxes, legitimately suspicious and malicious mailings worldwide that occurred in 2001, sparked by the genuine incidents that killed five people in the U.S. The true costs of the anthrax mailings, in terms of lives sickened and lost, mail disrupted, hoaxes investigated, social disruptions, laboratory work, business interruptions and, most importantly, fear, have never been calculated.

Stevens worked for a supermarket tabloid, famous for its stories claiming Elvis was still alive or celebrities were pregnant with Martian babies. As tragic as his death was, initial reactions to his anthrax poisoning reflected limited interest in what then seemed a very strange homicide. But as the numbers of apparent anthrax mailings widened, public fear rose. When an anthrax-laden envelope was opened in the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, spreading throughout his and a neighboring office on Capitol Hill, panic unfolded. The House of Representatives shut down. On-line sales of the Ciprofloxacin antibiotic hit a frenzy point, with people paying more than ten times the normal retail cost for a course of anthrax treatment.

Two days later the New York Times ran a front page story claiming experts concluded that a foreign power manufactured the anthrax in two separate batches, perfecting its lethality. The paper hinted at dark connections between the former Soviet biowarfare program, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and whoever stuffed spores into envelopes. The Times story would not be the first false account in the media of “militarized anthrax” made by a foreign biological warfare program, compounding public fears. As the anthrax saga continued to unfold, claiming the lives of postal workers and people that seemed to have been guilty of no more than touching letters, fear of white powder drove hysteria all over the world.

For example, on October 18 2001 French Minister of Health Bernard Kouchner announced that 20 Parisians were hospitalized after white powder was found in France‘s Parliament building, prompting closure of the nation’s legislature. That brought the total number of Paris hospitalizations in anthrax scares over the previous four days to 34. All of the anthrax incidents in France eventually proved to be hoaxes, but the numbers of such incidents, and the business closures, government shutdowns and hospitalizations they spawned, increased steadily, from three nationwide on October 14, to 26 the next day and 43 the next. The trend just worsened, day after day in France. 

The U.S. Embassies in Berlin and Athens each received putative anthrax letters the same day Kouchner made his French announcement. The Greek one contained a note saying simply, “Death.” The National Parliament in Canberra, Australia, was evacuated for five hours after an immigration officer opened an envelope from which white powder spewed: It ultimately tested negative for anthrax. Postal depots in the U.K.‘s Birmingham and London were evacuated, and mail workers put on antibiotics, after suspicious letters were discovered: These, too, prove to be hoaxes. In Madrid, Spain‘s largest newspaper, El Pais was shut down temporarily due to an anthrax hoax the same day.

That day Dr. Julius Meme received a damaged box from Atlanta, mailed to his Nairobi office: Kenyan authorities declared it tested positive for anthrax.

And when the New York Stock Exchange opened six hours later the hoaxes and mail disruptions so worried investors that stocks plummeted to nearly their post-9/11 nadir.

That was merely a single day. By October 20, 2001 health departments all over the world were running out of money trying to process all the envelopes, briefcases, boxes, even furniture pouring in from police and citizens, concerned about dusts and powders. The city of Atlanta spent $15 million on such lab costs in merely two weeks, Philadelphia $60 million and municipalities from Nairobi to Shanghai were racing to keep abreast of the anthrax testing demand. By late October businesses were installing X-ray machines and scanners to examine their mail, billions of dollars’ worth of bills and mortgages were going unpaid because people were afraid to open their mail, credit card interests skyrocketed as the State Department and other US government agencies impounded tons of correspondence thought to have been contaminated, and the US Postal Service was all but paralyzed by closure and scanning of its largest distribution and sorting centers.

What the 2001 anthrax event demonstrated is that nothing spreads faster in our globalized world than fear. And fear has its costs. Perversely, as the climate of anxiety rises, sick individuals that enjoy igniting further terror create hoaxes. The sight of biohazard-suited police surrounding boxes or buildings drives the faint-hearted into deep alarm. Confusion and falsehoods sewn by politicians or the media weave nets of despair and fret the world over. A false but fear-inspiring blog posting in Manila may be picked up by another blog in Moscow, Tweeted from Cairo, and presented as a given truth the following day in Los Angeles. Fear breeds falsehoods, and such verisimilitude is globally contagious.

Sadly the 2001 anthrax nightmare has been treated widely as a historical footnote to the more singular and dramatic tragedies of September 11th. While 9/11 inspired rage, grief, shock and calls for revenge, the unresolved and continuing anthrax saga took Americans and the world to fearfulness. And it was ultimately fear of terrorism that impelled calls for “preparedness” and War on Terrorism. Far from being a footnote, the global reaction to the anthrax letters compounded anxieties and trauma initiated by the September 11thassaults.