In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with the United States in shock, federal officials at the highest level were steeled for what they suspected would be a “second blow” from al Qaeda terrorists. Newspapers and television programs were full of premonitions of bioterrorism. On October 4, 2001, a Florida man was diagnosed with anthrax, a rare disease whose deadly spores had long been developed as aerosol weapons. That man, Bob Stevens, worked as a photoeditor for American Media Inc., the tabloid publisher. It seemed he might have handled a letter that contained anthrax spores, but the letter had been tossed away. Then, on October 12, in New York City, Mayor Giuliani announced that NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw had been targeted by an anthrax letter. That letter, it was soon revealed, contained virulent anthrax spores and an anonymous message that, with its exhortations of “Death to America” and “Praise to Allah,” seemed to come from al Qaeda or other foreign terrorists. On October 15, in the Washington, DC office of Senator Tom Daschle, another anthrax letter was opened. It also contained dangerous spores and threatening message that seemed to come from fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. Two more similar letters, one to the New York Post editor and another to Senator Patrick Leahy, soon surfaced. But did these letters have a foreign source or did they originate from a “lone wolf” terrorist in the United States? Were they the “second blow” that like 9/11 justified the United States “war on terror” or were they a criminal effort to make it seem an already besieged nation should fear foreign bioterrorism–and ramp up its biomedical defenses?
Jeanne Guillemin’s American Anthrax: Fear, Crime, and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterror Attack takes on the story of the devastating impact of the letters on the victims immediately impacted and the nearly eight years of FBI investigation that eventually, through innovative science, led to a prime suspect within the heart of the US defense establishment. Five people died from exposure to the spores, others (most of them mail handlers) became serious ill; thousands of others were evacuated from their workplaces and contended with the dread of possible infection. Yet the quest for justice halted suddenly when the FBI’s prime suspect, Bruce Edward Ivins, facing indictment, committed suicide in July 2008.
This troubled quest for justice, along with the changes in federal policy the attacks fostered, deserves to be remembered. Here’s how a review in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 11, 2011 described the book:
“American Anthrax” moves quickly from the first spore-bearing letter to the beginnings of panic. Like a crime novelist, Guillemin reveals no more than was known at each juncture…Tapping FBI files, e-mails, and the latest scientific research, Guillemin proves the ideal sleuth to uncover this mystery… The result is a balanced, thoughtful and adsorbing book.” (Bruce Watson)
The Wall Street Journal, in a review published on September 17, 2011, agreed, describing American Anthrax as a “brilliant examination” of how America responded to the unprecedented letter attacks. The review continues:
“While Ms. Guillemin tends to play down the possibility that anyone beyond our shores was involved–hence the title ’American Anthrax’–she is scrupulous when it comes to evidence and omits nothing of relevance. Her ability to elicit information from her interview subjects is a model for journalistic investigation. This is a spellbinding, chilling book.” (Edward Jay Epstein)
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