If you select American Anthrax for your book club, here is a list a questions that can promote discussion. Depending on your interests, you can pick and choose among them.
1. Most people clearly remember the 9/11 attacks, but have much more vague recollections of the anthrax letter attacks that followed soon after. Why do you think these reactions have been so different?
2. What new surprising facts did you learn from American Anthrax? Were you aware of the scope of their impact or of who the victims were? The author suggests that more people in their work places were traumatized by the letter attacks than is generally recognized. Why might this be true?
3. The FBI’s goal was to bring the criminal perpetrator to trial and conviction. As its investigation dragged on, though, those seeking justice turned to law suits, including three important ones against the federal government (by Brentwood Exposed, by Steven Hatfill, and by Maureen Stevens). How effective or conclusive or gratifying do you think such suits are likely to be?
4. The book describes widely differing local public health responses to the letter attacks. For example, the political contexts in Florida, New York, and Washington, DC, shaped how each locale reacted. Would these same differences determine a response to a similar attack today?
5. Did you notice how initially the FBI and the CDC were at odds during local responses? Do you think such conflict would occur in the event of another bioterrorism attack? Did you get a sense of how the federal government response in general changed in response to the anthrax letters?
6. In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration emphasized the possibility that Saddam Hussein still harbored germ weapons, including smallpox, as part of Iraq’s WMD stockpile. Do you think that the American public was decisively influenced by this possibility?
7. Throughout the story of the anthrax letters, the media plays an important role, both as a target and as an influence on American perceptions. Do you think the mass media has changed since 2001, when Tom Brokaw was a celebrity anchorman and newspapers were more widely read in print? As electronic media changed how we receive and interpret the news?
8. The US Postal Service was already in a time of stress when the anthrax letter attacks occurred. Have you a sense of how they may have further accelerated reliance on electronic or other means of communication?
9. The FBI’s November 2001 profile of the anthrax killer described “a lone wolf” with scientific skills, someone not unlike the Unabomber. Did its prime suspect in 2008, Bruce Ivins, fit that profile or were there significant differences?
10. What do we learn about Bruce Ivins in the course of this book? Does he come across as a “split personality” capable of murder? How did the US Army overlook his mental health records and allow him unsupervised access to a highly dangerous pathogen? What do you think are the odds of such a national security breach happening today at Detrick or elsewhere?
11. In his high school and college days, Bruce Ivins was stereotyped as a science geek and his mental health records point to lasting injury from this characterization. Do you think that students with scientific aptitude are today socially excluded or taunted as Ivins was? Or have American attitudes improved?
12. After the FBI tracked the DNA signature of the spores in the letters to a specific flask in Ivins’ lab at Fort Detrick’s Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), did it have an “air-tight” case against him or were there still doubts? Did the FBI’s pursuit of Steven Hatfill have an influence on how the public later perceived its credibility?
13. We rely every day on the products that come from research laboratories in the biomedical sciences. Yet few of us have ever worked in one or visited one. Can anyone in the group describe what such labs are like and how those charged with handling dangerous pathogens are organized?
14. How were facts about the case and the consequences of the letter attacks presented in American Anthrax? Did you read them as evidence or as an argument for some agenda? Were any of your opinions about the anthrax letters and government response changed by reading this book?
15. If a bioterrorist event affected your community or work place, what do you think the response would be? Is it worthwhile to compare the impact of the anthrax letter attacks to dangerous disease outbreaks that might occur by predictable means, such as travel, a failure to impose sanitation standards over food and water, or as a consequence of a natural disaster or the disruptions of warfare?