AMONTH AFTER the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, letters tainted with the anthrax bacteria were sent through U.S. mail processing facilities, infecting people in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington and Florida. The worst bioterrorist assault in U.S. history left five people dead, 17 sickened and some 10,000 on antibiotics. Public buildings had to be closed and cleaned at great expense; similarly expensive workplace safeguards have since been installed. Rubber gloves in mailrooms are now almost as common as envelopes. Yet three years after the anthrax mailings shocked the nation, we seem to be no closer to knowing who sent the letters. The bioterrorists are still at large.
The anthrax crisis, as we have noted before, has receded from public focus. But it shouldn't. Anthrax spores, used as weapons of mass destruction, were successfully unleashed with deadly consequences, and the killings remain unsolved. As a nation, we lose focus on that chilling fact at our peril.
The apparent lack of progress in the search for those responsible ought to be a major concern to federal law enforcement and the public. What is to stop the anthrax killers from striking again? It's all well and good that the country is somewhat better prepared to respond to another anthrax attack. Tangled lines of authority on cleanups and antibiotic treatment are less cumbersome. The need for closer working relationships between public health departments and law enforcement in cases of bioterrorism is now recognized. New rules are replacing the old go-it-alone bureaucratic practices.
But none of those improvements eliminates the danger that the sender or senders of those letters may decide to use anthrax bacteria or similar deadly microbes in the same or a different method against the public. The fact that those responsible for wreaking so much havoc on the country have never been caught is in itself a worrisome statement about the effectiveness of federal law enforcement. The anthrax attack, remorseless and unsolved, is still a standard against which defense of the homeland should be measured.