Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Forgotten Biological Terror of 9/11

A new type of fear gripped the United States 20 years ago—and never stopped spreading.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ralph Madonia from the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Hazardous Materials Response Team secures his Bio Hazard suit October 15, 2001 as he responds to a report of a powdery substance found in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Ralph Madonia from the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Hazardous Materials Response Team secures his Bio Hazard suit October 15, 2001 as he responds to a report of a powdery substance found in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has been greeted by assurances from national security experts, insisting the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban offers no special threat to the United States and that al Qaeda’s assaults in 2001 did not actually empower the group. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, for example, the scholar Nelly Lahoud, an expert on extremism, insists that 20 years after the 9/11 attacks jihadi groups have accomplished very little: They have proved more bluff and bluster than genuine threat. “They stand a far better chance of achieving eternal life in paradise,” she concludes, “than of bringing the United States to its knees.”

But that misses the point. Osama bin Laden and his monstrous band of terrorists never needed to present an existential threat to the ship of state, bringing the government of the United States to its knees. They merely needed to strike terror and trauma in the soul of the nation. By that measure, their mission was accomplished. Fearfulness spiked in 2001, not only in America but around the world, driving drumbeats of war and costing trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian lives.

Among the fears that compounded was a new type of biological anxiety. The all-consuming health concerns that have seized the country during our current pandemic were already familiar to many Americans—and especially to New Yorkers. Consciously or not, many of us have been living with a pandemic psychology for two decades, triggered by the long-term biological effects of the attacks on the World Trade Center—and the still-unsolved bioterrorism attacks that followed.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has been greeted by assurances from national security experts, insisting the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban offers no special threat to the United States and that al Qaeda’s assaults in 2001 did not actually empower the group. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, for example, the scholar Nelly Lahoud, an expert on extremism, insists that 20 years after the 9/11 attacks jihadi groups have accomplished very little: They have proved more bluff and bluster than genuine threat. “They stand a far better chance of achieving eternal life in paradise,” she concludes, “than of bringing the United States to its knees.”

But that misses the point. Osama bin Laden and his monstrous band of terrorists never needed to present an existential threat to the ship of state, bringing the government of the United States to its knees. They merely needed to strike terror and trauma in the soul of the nation. By that measure, their mission was accomplished. Fearfulness spiked in 2001, not only in America but around the world, driving drumbeats of war and costing trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian lives.

Among the fears that compounded was a new type of biological anxiety. The all-consuming health concerns that have seized the country during our current pandemic were already familiar to many Americans—and especially to New Yorkers. Consciously or not, many of us have been living with a pandemic psychology for two decades, triggered by the long-term biological effects of the attacks on the World Trade Center—and the still-unsolved bioterrorism attacks that followed.

I was by the World Trade Center towers when they collapsed, and I monitored the daily events and rising fears, eventually catalogued in my book I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks. The anxieties built, each feeding on the other, to produce a level of collective fearfulness far greater than the sum of its parts. As the autumn of 2001 faded to winter, the United States was still standing, but its knees were trembling.

For weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a dark plume of toxic, putrid smoke rose from the pancaked pile that had been the World Trade Center, blowing over lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, exposing firefighters, police, local workers, and residents to carcinogens and highly alkaline dust in an environmental assault that would prove deadly to hundreds. New York’s World Trade Center Health Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have monitored select groups for over a decade, logging elevated health issues that run the gamut from severe depression to alcoholism, to cancer and unusual respiratory diseases.

A key symptom was dubbed “World Trade Center cough”—a relentless, dry hacking caused by the intrusion of highly alkaline dust particles from the plume deep into victims’ lungs. The human body, it turns out, is designed to expel acidic particles from natural events like fires and volcanoes, but there are no natural sources of inhaled limestone particulates with a highly alkaline pH of 11, nor of microscopic glass fibers buried in the lungs’ alveoli, insinuated into the bloodstream, forming tumors in the gut. In 2021, one report indicated that more than two-thirds of the firefighters and emergency medical crew members who worked on the burning, flattened debris dubbed “the Pile” in 2001 and inhaled the plume of smoke are suffering long-term physical and mental health conditions. “This intense environmental exposure is directly related to many of the symptoms and illnesses,” the report said.

Inside the White House, James L. Connaughton, an attorney who had previously represented the asbestos industry was appointed as then-President George W. Bush’s environment point man. By his command, Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, on Sept. 15, 2001, pronounced the contents of the plume emanating from the burning pile of World Trade Center death safe to breathe and free of asbestos, giving the green light to reopen Wall Street.  Two days later, Wall Street was in fact reopened, long before the agency’s studies of air and dust samples had even begun.

While Whitman was declaring all was safe, experts from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey flew special jets over the plume, collecting chemical traces that proved so alarming that on Sept. 17 they raced to the Oval Office to warn the president—who nevertheless urged keeping Wall Street open. Fear had already driven the markets down by 7 percent—the biggest point drop ever until that point in history—and the Federal Reserve planned to pump billions of dollars into markets to goose them back up, despite brokers and financiers needing to tiptoe around World Trade Center debris and inhale the plume to make their ways to stock exchange trading floors.

The plume burned for more than three months, its trail visible from the International Space Station, sending putrid odors whichever way the wind blew, usually across Brooklyn. Even if New Yorkers couldn’t see the horror every day, they might smell it, feel the burn in their eyes, cough uncontrollably. The first responders had no choice: There was nobody left to rescue, but Mayor Rudy Giuliani couldn’t concede that all had perished and so left the first responders and foreign teams of rescue experts atop the World Trade Center cauldron. At night inside the Jacob Javits Center, I watched rescue dogs whimpering, licking their burned paws after days of fruitless hunting atop the pile of debris. Exhausted search teams from all over the world, bivouacked in the convention center, rested in depressed silence, unable to believe that there were no survivors to rescue.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 19 in faraway Boca Raton, Florida, a photography editor named Robert K. Stevens opened a letter mailed to his tabloid newspaper, the Sun. Later analysis by a private company and the Centers for Disease Control would discover anthrax spores on Steven’s desk and in the mailroom. And mail sorter Ernie Blanco was hospitalized on Oct. 1 with what would later be diagnosed as anthrax poisoning. Stevens, hospitalized the day after Blanco, died of anthrax poisoning on Oct. 5, the assumed lethal letter having long since been thrown away.

Throughout October and early November 2001, more anthrax-contaminated letters and magazines were mailed to news organizations and the offices of Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle. Evidence of anthrax was also detected in the mail centers of a host of federal agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board, State Department, and Supreme Court. Even the White House postal facility received mail contaminated with anthrax, prompting Bush to tell the nation on Oct. 23, “I don’t have anthrax. … I’m confident that when I come to work tomorrow that I’ll be safe.” And that day, Attorney General John Ashcroft equivocated when asked whether al Qaeda was behind the anthrax mailings, saying simply that whoever was doing it was a terrorist.

By the time 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren died in the village of Oxford, Connecticut, on Nov. 21 from inhaling anthrax spores that investigators believe contaminated her mail in a U.S. Postal Service sorting center, four other individuals, including Stevens and two postal workers, had been killed.

In retrospect, the al Qaeda attacks and anthrax mailings formed a mutual arc of fearfulness, each unveiling levels of evil and anti-Americanism few had previously imagined and demonstrating incompetence across the U.S. government. From an intelligence community that shrugged off omens of al Qaeda’s intents, to an FBI that seven years later named an anthrax culprit whose identity remains controversial today, and to a public health establishment that couldn’t agree on any aspect of anthrax biology and risk, American faith in government was undermined.

Few today think back on the hysteria of 2001 as mysterious envelopes of powder were mailed helter-skelter, causing shutdowns of the U.S. Congress; the entire State Department diplomatic pouch system; many embassies; the British, French and Australian parliaments; a floor of the National Bank of Bahrain; and far more. Then-French Minister of Health Bernard Kouchner warned his nation that anthrax panic had so overtaken Paris that hospitals were filling with people who were convinced that they were dying of the disease.

Throughout those days of grief and putrescence, teams of police, FBI, and public health investigators were popping out of emergency vehicles on live TV, dressed in scary hazmat suits to collect alleged anthrax samples. So many politicians, celebrities, schools, universities, and businesses were receiving malicious powder-filled letters in the mail that people were afraid to open packages or envelopes. Fear of the mail drove down commerce and Wall Street, and caused panic in postal systems worldwide. A primary target was the news media, and thousands of employees at CBS, NBC, ABC, the New York Times, and CNN underwent anthrax tests. I was called by an official in the White House in the middle of this, told that my name had come up on a threat analysis and special precautions should followed regarding my mail, movements, and conversations with strangers. Tens of thousands of people all over the world were put on prophylactic ciprofloxacin, a toxic broad-spectrum antibiotic, taken for up to six gut-wrenching weeks. By Oct. 22, nearly 2,000 members of the media in New York City alone had been tested and, in most cases, treated with ciprofloxacin. By Oct. 29, some 13,000 U.S. postal workers were on the treatment.

The radius of fear far exceeded any sane threat analysis. From small towns in rural Wyoming to shopping centers in Nairobi, panic set in. For example, by Oct. 20, with events still unfolding, anthrax pranks and fears had already cost the city of Madison, Wisconsin, $200,000; Philadelphia $60 million; and Atlanta $15 million—in no case, it would turn out, were the threats genuine. The price tags for New York City and Washington, D.C., were both in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The true litany of anthrax contamination, sickness, and death was awful enough; at least 35 Postal Service mail sorting and distribution centers were contaminated by spores leaking from mailed envelopes, exposing postal workers and mail recipients who were never among the attacker’s presumed targets.

Anthony Fauci, who was then as he is today head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged on Oct. 24 to the anthrax-anxious nation that the highest levels of government were at a loss to say how many spores were, to be blunt, too many spores, and how best the bacterial threat could be purged. “Obviously, there’s no reference book, there’s no textbook. There’s nobody! So, you have to get some smart people together, think it through, and put together some smart guesses,” he said.

Fearfulness over anthrax was simply worsened by federal terrorism alerts regarding other al Qaeda threats, as well as mixed messages about who was responsible for the lethal spores. Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller ordered his agency to aggressively pursue possible al Qaeda operatives in Florida, New York, and New Jersey, looking for links to bioterrorism. But the vice president’s office falsely claimed chemicals found on the anthrax spores proved they were made in Iraq, providing justification for war on Baghdad. Tom Ridge, appointed to lead the newly created Office of Homeland Security, advised Americans that it was impossible to know who was behind it all.

Two days before a Halloween that many Americans were afraid to celebrate, the Office of Homeland Security raised an alarm, claiming intelligence that another attack was imminent, likely targeting New York. Giuliani told Ridge, “Tom, the city is already on the very highest state of alert. The lampposts are on alert. I’ve got the World Series tomorrow night. I’ve got the president coming to throw out the first pitch. I’ve got 30,000 people running in the marathon on Sunday, with 2 million watching. Are you telling me to close the airports? Cancel the series?”

This plea for clarity about shutting down the city no doubt sounds familiar in today’s coronavirus-challenged America. But clarity is no easier to come by in 2021 than it was in 2001. Constant threats to Americans’ lives have eroded their collective rationality and warped their sense of community today, just as such threats did in the aftermath of 9/11. By most political and social measures, the American people are more divided today than at any time since the 1960s, some argue since the Civil War. And the grounds for fear continue to multiply. New COVID-19 infection rates have risen 316 percent compared to Labor Day 2020; among those perishing are disproportionate numbers of first responders; about 1 out of every 5 adult and adolescent Americans continues to refuse vaccination. Though stock markets and billionaires have done well, average Americans are facing dire economic challenges, including the loss of rent and unemployment federal subsidies. And throughout the summer, weather and fire records have broken, bringing the hottest, driest, and most inferno-like days in recorded history in the American West. In the nation’s East and South, record-breaking storms, tornadoes, and floods have battered Americans.

It wouldn’t take much to bump 2021 America’s fearfulness barometer up to its 2001 levels, or beyond.

Contrary to Lahoud’s analysis, the lesson of 9/11 isn’t that al Qaeda failed to bring “the United States to its knees.” The lesson is that an America grown increasingly fearful by layers of seemingly endless threats, misinformation, and genuine assaults is fragile. Americans are tired of proving their resilience. They want to relax. On Sept. 11, 2021—or, frankly, anytime in the coming weeks—a threat to the United States need not be existential to prove cataclysmic, nor to sap the soul of the exhausted nation.

Laurie Garrett is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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