The Magazine

Wishful Thinking in Our Time

Anthrax and the homegrown-psycho theory.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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AFTER ATTENDING a briefing held by CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller last Thursday, Florida Democrat Bob Graham emerged from the Capitol to let the American people know where we stand in the search for those who mailed the treated anthrax that has thus far resulted in three deaths, dozens of infections, and 10,000 prophylactic doses of the antibiotic Cipro. The identity of the culprit, said Graham, is "really up in the air."

But the theories of the crime are not. There are basically two schools of thought. First are those who hold that the anthrax was obtained or manufactured by al Qaeda or a sympathetic terrorist network. The New York Times coverage has leaned towards this view. Second are those who see the hand of "homegrown extremists." The Washington Post gave full airing last week to that view. Both sides have "expert" sources to back their mutually contradictory points.

The question has grown more pressing the more the packet sent to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has been analyzed. For the anthrax seems to have been refined and milled to make it easy to inhale, and then coated to make it more efficiently deadly, using a technique that only the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Iraq are thought to have mastered. And we destroyed our anthrax stocks a quarter century ago.

In a narrow sense, the foreign-versus-homegrown question is meaningless. Of course this wave of terror is homegrown. The letters we know of were mailed from Trenton, New Jersey. The real question is whether it was done by an old-fashioned Tim McVeigh-style, angry white sociopath, or whether it was done by a Muslim with an anti-American political agenda. This is a question of overriding importance. If a McVeigh-type is to blame, then we're embarking on one of the largest American criminal investigations ever. It will be scary and more Americans may die by the time it's over, but we've been there before. It's the territory of clock-tower snipers and disgruntled-employee shootings writ large.

If it's an al Qaeda or other Islamofascist effort, we're in different territory altogether. For one thing, until that movement's logistical support around the country is finally rolled up, we will have to anticipate worse attacks. If al Qaeda or some allied group retains enough spores, we could face widespread simultaneous releases of anthrax that would endanger the lives of millions. Or it could turn out that anthrax is just the first installment of varied bio-terror attacks to come. Most consequential of all, any link to Iraq's biological weapons program would entail, at the least, a second Gulf War. And remember that it has been U.S. policy since the first Gulf War that a biological attack would, militarily speaking, put "all options on the table." Which scenario do you prefer? Coaxing some nut off a clock-tower with a bullhorn? Or eyeball-to-eyeball threats of nuclear escalation?

Given the alternative, it is perfectly understandable why people would want to cling to the clock-tower scenario. But it's getting more and more difficult to do so. Typical of the evidence for a "homegrown" crank was the Washington Post's interview with a retired Air Force official named Gerald "Gary" Brown. Brown thinks the high-quality anthrax Daschle received was sent by a right-wing kook because Daschle's "on the left." This is naive sociology, to say the least.

The evidence for some link to the Islamicist terror agenda, meanwhile, grows stronger as the days pass. The New York Times's Judith Miller, author of a book on germ warfare, spoke to a scientist who said that the Daschle anthrax particles were surrounded by a "tiny brown ring," consistent with the use of bentonite, an agent used to weaponize anthrax in the Iraqi biological arms program.

It is not the quality of the evidence but the hugeness of the stakes that is driving investigators towards the "homegrown" reading of the crisis. Just look at last week's parade of wishful thinkers. There was Tom Ridge's urging that people "wash their hands" after opening mail. (Since soap doesn't kill anthrax, one could reasonably ask: With what? Formaldehyde?) There were all the handwriting "experts" theorizing that the anthrax letters were produced by some American trying to imitate a Muslim extremist. (But have you looked closely at the Rs? How can they be the work of a native user of Latin handwriting?) And then there was Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan's assertion last Wednesday that "any risk that may exist [from mailed anthrax] is infinitesimal." (Provided, that is, that the terrorists are polite enough not to mail any more letters.)

The evidence for al Qaeda's or Iraq's involvement is not conclusive. If it proves so, the implications are grim. The "homegrown extremist" argument, alas, looks like nothing more than our latest effort to fantasize our way back to the peace of mind we enjoyed two months ago.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

November 5, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 8