Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Other Terrorist Attack 

Tom Engelhardt's essay "It Should Have Been Unforgettable" appeared ten days ago (which makes it, by our calculations, 67 in blog years), and although we had meant to bring it to your attention last week, festivity intervened; we hope you will forgive our tardiness. The 9/11 attacks, as you know, "changed everything," and have since been put to use as a justification for, to offer a partial list, pre-emptive war; torture; "extraordinary rendition"; the junking of the Geneva conventions; the junking of due process, habeas corpus, and the posse comitatus laws; surveillance of American citizens by their own government; and the nascent doctrine of an imperial Presidency unconstrained by any law.

The other terrorist action of that fall, which was arguably just as frightening in its implications, changed exactly nothing. It was a damp fart. The anthrax used in the 2001 attacks most likely originated in a DoD lab; there was no foreign boogeyman who could be trotted out on cue to frighten a harrowed, increasingly submissive citizenry. Nope -- this particular menace Came From Within. It was the product of government research and half-assed, barely-enforced security measures, making it a poor advertisement indeed for the Cheney-Knows-Best administration and its pursuit of absolute power at home and abroad.

"It's an irony of our world," Engelhardt writes, "that neither Osama bin Laden, nor the anthrax killer(s) have been apprehended. By now, bin Laden has, in fact, disappeared into something like the kind of anonymity the anthrax killer had from the beginning":
If, as an editor of a major newspaper, you were to draw a single conclusion from this horrifying episode, it might be: Despite what we've heard, the greatest WMD danger to Americans comes not from impoverished Third World or rickety Middle Eastern rogue states, but from the arsenals and weapons labs of the two former Cold War superpowers. But nothing in the media coverage since then has indicated anything of the sort. While, prewar, reporters prowled Iraqi nuclear facilities, wrote major pieces on Iraq's "Dr. Germ," and brought down whole forests of trees in the service of WMD programs at Iraq's Tuwaitha or North Korea's Yongbyan, or on gassed dogs in Afghanistan and the Iranian bomb that also wasn't, the Soviet and American weapons labs, the Soviet and American Dr. Germs, the Ames anthrax strain, and the anthrax killer hardly took out a tree or two.

When was the last time you read a major report on the state of American biowarfare work? When was the last time you encountered a significant story about the weapons labs at Fort Detrick in suburban Maryland where the Ames strain was evidently first researched or the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah where it was produced and tested? How much attention has been given to recent contracts linked to Dugway that signal a desire on the part of the U.S. military to "buy large quantities of anthrax, in a controversial move that is likely to raise questions over its commitment to treaties designed to limit the spread of biological weapons"? When was the last time you read an article on whether the Homeland Security Department or the Pentagon is attending to the potential dangers of the American WMD arsenal? How much attention has gone into the decrepit system for locking down Russian WMD stocks? The odd news piece, nothing more. And while this administration spends about a billion dollars a week on its war in Iraq, it has hardly had the will or interest to raise the few billion dollars a year needed to help lock-down the Russian arsenal. Imagine that. If, of course, the President had chosen to launch his "war" on terror against the anthrax killers, this might have been our top priority . . . .

Now, here's the interesting thing: Because this administration had its eyes set on the Middle East from the beginning, it essentially chose its terror war from column A (the September 11th attacks), not column B (the anthrax attacks, once it became clear that they were connected not to al-Qaeda but the American arsenal). Hence our control group. Here, for instance, is a very partial list of actions not taken by this administration in relation to the anthrax attacks:

Our President never swore to get the killer(s), "dead or alive." He kept no profile of the possible killer or killers in his desk drawer, so he could cross him/them off when caught. The President, Vice President, National Security Adviser, and others did not warn the public and Congress regularly of the possibility of "clouds of anthrax" being released in our major cities (though this had, after a fashion, already happened) even as they were issuing dire warnings about fantasy Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs that might at any time spray biological or chemical weapons over east coast cities. (Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration's resolution authorizing force in Iraq because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.") No American planes swooped down to bomb the weapons labs of Fort Detrick or the Dugway Proving Grounds; the only suspect publicly identified, while hounded for a period, was never declared an "enemy combatant." No one seized and rendered him; no CIA agents swept him from the street, cut off his clothes, shot him up with drugs, slipped him into an orange jumpsuit, whisked him onto an unregistered plane, and took him to a secret prison in Egypt or elsewhere to have "the truth" beaten or waterboarded or otherwise tortured out of him. Nor did he end up incarcerated in Guantanamo for years, trial-less and beyond the reach of the courts. Quite the opposite, Hatfill is suing former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department, and others for violating his constitutional rights and the New York Times for defaming him . . . .

The saddest story is this: If tomorrow, George Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts were somehow tossed out on their ears -- call it indictment, impeachment, or something else -- what they, not Osama bin Laden or the anthrax terrorists will have cost us, in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will still be incalculable. Among the greatest costs will be the way administration officials used the 9/11 attacks (and buried the anthrax ones) in order to breach so many levees of our world.

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