Are the anthrax attacks in America the work of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network? Reports that some of the suicide hijackers showed an interest in crop-duster aircraft make anthrax cases in Florida, New York, Nevada and Washington look very suspicious.
The terrorists responsible for the horrific attacks on Sept. 11 turned a comparatively ordinary vehicle of transportation into a weapon that produced mass casualties. Can the same be done with anthrax?
Terrorist groups or individuals can acquire and deliver anthrax, but it is not easy. The small-scale attacks in the United States so far illustrate the difficulty of using this deadly disease as an effective weapon. One person has died from exposure, but only a few others have shown symptoms or have been exposed, and they all are expected to recover. The capabilities required to inflict a massive attack are difficult for states with considerable resources, let alone a terrorist group that must operate in the shadows. The Japanese cult group that released deadly liquid nerve agent on the Tokyo subway in 1995 had resources equal to or greater than bin Laden's, but it failed in all its attempts to use biological weapons to harm large numbers of people. Why use deadly diseases when truck bombs or hijacked passenger airliners are easier to get and use? The anthrax terrorists, whoever they are, will succeed if people allow them to. By keeping in mind the modest scope of the anthrax attacks and not overreacting, we deny the perpetrators of these attacks their objective of terrorizing us into doing what they want us to do. These anthrax cases do, however, highlight some areas for improvement in America's response that can help reduce fear and anxiety, thereby denying the terrorists their objective.
First, there is need to improve the speed and accuracy of identifying the presence of dangerous pathogens and determining if people have been exposed. Two or three days is simply too long. The wait only adds to public distress. Second, hoaxes and copycat attacks must be sharply reduced and the perpetrators severely punished. Hoaxes slow and divert the efforts of authorities to save the lives of real victims. When hoaxers are apprehended, they should be subject to severe penalties that are widely announced to deter others from doing the same.
Finally, a new global effort must be made to stop the proliferation of dangerous pathogens to irresponsible states or individuals. The United States has recently improved its system for regulating commerce in dangerous pathogens within its borders, but similar constraints are largely absent in other countries.
Surely there is a workable balance between pathogen commerce for legitimate commercial and scientific purposes and safeguarding against the transfer of these deadly materials to people who will use them as weapons.
The U.S. government has a responsibility to help the public put emerging dangers in perspective. The challenge is accurately assessing the relative dangers when panic encroaches on good judgment. Authorities at the federal, state and local levels have thus far done a good job of managing these attacks, but public forgiveness for imperfections in the response will not last. Genuine improvements in handling biological attacks are needed. At present there is no evidence of complicity between the Sept. 11 attackers and the anthrax cases. But even if a connection develops, the anthrax attacks thus far pose only a modest risk. Greatly reducing the health and terror impact of the attacks is clearly within our grasp.
The writer is a policy analyst in the Washington office of the RAND Corporation. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 17, 2001.