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Letter From Ground Zero: October 25, 2011 | The Nation

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Letter From Ground Zero: October 25, 2011

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As the conflict that began on September 11 heads into its sixth week, two clouds of danger hang over its two battlefields, the United States and Afghanistan. In the United States the danger is bioterrorism, represented by the attacks on the news media and the federal government by means of anthrax sent in the mail. In Afghanistan it is starvation, which, according to the United Nations and private relief agencies, could claim hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives if the flow of international aid, now disrupted both by the war and by interference from the Taliban regime, is not dispatched into the country before the onset of winter. The two dangers exhibit striking similarities. Both raise the stakes of the conflict by an order of magnitude. Both menace civilian populations, not armed forces. Both can, at their worst, cause casualties on a mass scale, yet the extent to which this will occur in either case cannot, for now, be known.

Paradoxically, nothing would do more for the peace of mind of Americans than to discover that an American--some unabomber or right-wing lunatic--was responsible for the anthrax attacks. If that were the case, then the possibility of linkage between those attacks and the war in Afghanistan would disappear, and the reciprocal escalation on the two fronts that is probably the greatest danger the world now faces might be avoided. Hope for such a discovery received a blow, however, when the government, after a two-week delay, disclosed the contents of three of the anthrax-laden letters. All three said, "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." It didn't sound like the Montana militia.

The precise character of the anthrax was also left vague. When anthrax was found in the office of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, House minority leader Richard Gephardt declared it to be "weapons-grade," but an unnamed bioterrorism official told the Washington Post that the FBI did not yet know whether or not this was true, and the New York Times approvingly noted in an editorial that "loose talk" that the material "was weapons-grade has been disavowed by leading senators." This week Gephardt again said that the anthrax was weapons-grade.

The questions that lay behind these conflicting statements were crucial, because they shed light on both the extent of danger and its origin. At issue was whether the United States was in danger of attack by a weapon of mass destruction. If the anthrax has been weaponized, it is suitable for mass attacks and is more likely to have been produced by a technically sophisticated organization, most likely a state. If a state is involved, it might also resort to other weapons of mass destruction, including contagious diseases, such as smallpox, or nuclear weapons. The state most often mentioned is of course Iraq, which is known to have produced anthrax, and very likely still does. However, the possible involvement of Iraq is another matter on which the Administration has given conflicting signals. To determine whether anthrax has been weaponized, three questions must be answered. First, have the spores been "milled" to a small size--"aerosolized"--so they can float in the air, thereby infecting many people; second, have they been selected for virulence; third, have they been engineered to produce immunity to antibiotics? So far, only the third question has been answered--in the negative. Whether the other two go unanswered because the government does not yet know the answers or, as in the case of the letters, has been unwilling to release them, is also unknown.

The dimensions of the threat of starvation in Afghanistan, though also hard to estimate, are clearer than the dangers from anthrax. As mentioned in this column last week, the call by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson for a pause in the bombing so that aid could be increased--a call joined almost immediately by major private relief organizations--went almost entirely unreported in the United States. In England, by contrast, the call was widely reported and a lively debate on the issue is under way. Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, responded that the relief organizations were being "emotional" and that sufficient aid was getting through. The relief organizations held their ground. In testimony solicited by Parliament, Justin Forsyth, Oxfam's policy director, said, "We were not being emotional. We were being practical. There is not enough food flowing in world food programs." The Observer argued in an editorial that the best way to deal with the crisis was to overthrow the Taliban. But Forsyth held that the fall of the Taliban, by creating an "even more chaotic" situation, might worsen the outlook for aid. No comparable hearings--or audible discussion of any kind--of Robinson's call or of the threatened catastrophe occurred here.

If in the weeks ahead the world is luckier than it has been since September 11, neither peril of mass destruction will materialize. The anthrax attacks will trail off, followed by nothing worse. The aid in Afghanistan will somehow get through. However, it is only prudent to ask ourselves now, before any of these things happen, what should be done if the world is not so lucky. If the two disasters occur, they will be linked--perhaps in fact, certainly in people's minds on either side of the conflict. What will America's foes do if Afghans starve by the hundreds of thousands and the US military campaign is held, rightly or wrongly, to be responsible? The terrorists may of course strike at the United States again without any further provocation. But an atmosphere of rage in the Islamic world can only make escalation more likely. What will Americans do if a biological attack then kills equal numbers in this country? On the margins of debate, there have already been discussions of using nuclear weapons--most recently by Representative Peter King, who said that if the only way to stop the use of chemical weapons is nuclear weapons, "obviously we have to use them."

During the cold war, governments and peoples learned that, in our age of weapons of mass destruction, the logic of retaliation led only to annihilation--to "mutual assured destruction." We have arrived at the verge of a new permutation of that outcome--a new brink. We need to back off. A good place to begin would be a full debate in the United States on the consequences of our military actions for the hungry people of Afghanistan, leading to a policy that, in our own interest as well as theirs, places their survival at the center of our concern.

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