This article originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
Oh, the spectacle of it all–and don’t think I’m referring to those opening ceremonies in Beijing, where North Korean-style synchronization seemed to fuse with smiley-faced Walt Disney, or Michael Phelps’s thrilling hunt for eight gold medals and Speedo’s $1 million “bonus,” a modernized tribute to the ancient Greek tradition of amateurism in action. No, I’m thinking of the blitz of media coverage after Dr. Bruce Ivins, who worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, committed suicide by Tylenol on July 29 and the FBI promptly accused him of the anthrax attacks of September and October 2001.
You remember them: the powder that, innocuously enough, arrived by envelope–giving going postal a new meaning–accompanied by hair-raising letters ominously dated “09-11-01” that said, “Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” Five Americans would die from anthrax inhalation and seventeen would be injured. The Hart Senate Office Building, along with various postal facilities, would be shut down for months of clean-up, while media companies that received the envelopes were thrown into chaos.
For a nation already terrified by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the thought that a brutal dictator with weapons of mass destruction (who might even have turned the anthrax over to the terrorists) was ready to do us greater harm undoubtedly helped pave the way for an invasion of Iraq. The President would even claim that Saddam Hussein had the ability to send unmanned aerial vehicles to spray biological or chemical weapons over the east coast of the United States (drones that, like Saddam’s nuclear program, would turn out not to exist).
Today, it’s hard even to recall just how terrifying those anthrax attacks were. According to a LexisNexis search, between October 4 and December 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times with “anthrax” in the headline. In that same period, 238 such stories appeared in the Washington Post. That’s the news equivalent of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror–and from those attacks would emerge an American world of hysteria involving orange alerts and duct tape, smallpox vaccinations, and finally a war, lest any of this stuff, or anything faintly like it, fall into the hands of terrorists.