Our Forgotten Panic
By Richard Cohen
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page A21
You no longer hear the names of Ottilie Lundgren, Kathy T. Nguyen, Joseph P. Curseen, Thomas L. Morris Jr. and Robert Stevens. As far as I know, public memorial services are not held for most of them. These five were the first and only deaths from the now-forgotten terrorist attack, the one that is never mentioned because, among other things, it has never been explained. They died of anthrax poisoning.
Others were hospitalized for either inhaling anthrax spores or getting them on their skin. All in all, nearly 60 locations reported receiving anthrax spores -- usually through the mail. Among them was the headquarters of the Sun, a supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton, Fla., where Robert Stevens contracted anthrax sometime around Oct. 1, 2001. He was the first to die.
At the time, Stevens's death and those that followed appeared somehow linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That seemed to make sense because the first letters containing anthrax spores were mailed around that time and, maybe more to the point, the authorities at first said so. "There is a suspicion that this is connected to international terrorists," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt echoed him: "I don't think there's a way to prove that, but I think we all suspect that." Iraq was among the suspects. It was thought to have a storehouse of biological weapons.
I mention anthrax for the simple reason that no one does anymore. It's a curious silence since, along with the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, it all but dominated the news. Some of us did not get mail deliveries and, when they resumed, we went into secure rooms where we donned latex gloves and face masks before opening letters. On a tip, I asked my doctor early on to prescribe Cipro for me, only to find out that, insider though I thought I was, nearly everyone had been asking him for the same thing. People made anthrax-safe rooms, and one woman I know of had a mask made for her small dog. I still don't know if that was a touching gesture or just plain madness.
My point is that we were panicked. Yet that panic never gets mentioned. Last month the New Republic published a "special issue" in which a bevy of very good writers wondered whether they had been wrong to support the war in Iraq. Most of them admitted to having erred about this or that detail or in failing to appreciate how badly George Bush would administer the war and the occupation. But none confessed to being seized by the zeitgeist. I read the magazine cover to cover and unless I somehow missed it, the word anthrax never appeared. Imagine! Not once! Not a single one of these writers admitted to panicking over anthrax.
Well, I did. I'm not sure if panic is quite the right word, but it is close enough. Anthrax played a role in my decision to support the Bush administration's desire to take out Saddam Hussein. I linked him to anthrax, which I linked to Sept. 11. I was not going to stand by and simply wait for another attack -- more attacks. I was going to go to the source, Hussein, and get him before he could get us. As time went on, I became more and more questioning, but I had a hard time backing down from my initial whoop and holler for war.
Nations and peoples can lose their heads. The easiest way to explain how Hitler came to power is simply to say that Germany went nuts. That's the most extreme example. But something irrational overcame the United States after World War I and the anti-radical Palmer Raids, or the decision, following Pearl Harbor, to incarcerate Japanese Americans. McCarthyism was another period of collective insanity. I know we are a great and brave country, but sometimes we react to threats by simply going to pieces.
It's great that we have multiple commissions looking into intelligence failures, but none of those commissions will come close to the greatest intelligence failure of all -- our inability to use our heads when we most needed to. The terrorist attacks coupled with the anthrax scare unhinged us a bit -- or maybe more than a bit. We eventually went into a war that now makes little sense and that, without a doubt, was waged for reasons that simply did not exist. We did so, I think, because we were scared. You could say we lacked judgment. Maybe. I would say we lacked leadership.
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