A new state of fear
Anthrax and warnings of more terror send America into higher anxiety
In a nation most definitely on edge, the news sent icy chills down spines from coast to coast. It tumbled out almost hourly. On Saturday, Nevada officials revealed that the contents of a suspicious letter mailed to a Microsoft office in Reno had tested positive for anthrax, exposing as many as six people to the dreaded disease. Just the day before, in New York, an aide to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw had tested positive for anthrax, apparently after opening another envelope bearing a suspicious powder. Both discoveries came hard on the heels of reports from Florida that three workers at American Media Inc. also had been exposed to and one had died of the bacterium, long favored as a biological weapon. The offices sat only miles away from airports where Osama bin Laden's hijackers had trained and asked about crop-dusters.
In the panic that followed the initial reports, the few patterns that emerged only fed the fears. Mysterious powders were also found last week in letters to the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times, as well as on a floor at the U.S. State Department. Preliminary tests on those powders have all come up negative for anthrax. But not so with a brown granular substance mailed September 18 from Trenton, N.J., to NBC. That, like the powder mailed to Microsoft, was anthrax and is believed to be the sample that infected Brokaw's aide.
Suspicions. As in a bad sci-fi movie, technicians in hazmat suits and gas masks marched into offices, quarantining rooms and decontaminating employees. At the New York Times, terrorism reporter Judith Miller opened a letter Friday morning to find an angry note threatening an attack on Chicago's Sears Tower--and a white substance that she promptly got on herself. Soon, specialists were taping off the area around her desk and carting away boxes of material. More than 30 Times staffers were tested and appear unaffected. Still, media organizations around the country shut down their mailrooms and passed around an FBI advisory on suspicious packages, warning about strange odors, misspelled words, and oily stains. Magazine editor Geoff Van Dyke, who watched as New York police and the National Guard sealed off his street, remembers thinking: "What is this world coming to? Will this ever end?"
Not anytime soon. That, at least, was the message from America's top officials. Even as Attorney General John Ashcroft stressed there was no apparent connection between the anthrax cases and bin Laden, Vice President Dick Cheney said the country "should proceed on the basis that it could be linked." And the FBI released a rare public alert warning of imminent terrorist assaults, relying, in part, on intercepted orders to bin Laden operatives to launch new attacks. Said Ashcroft, "Every American should be vigilant."
Vigilant they are, but the sudden worries over anthrax have also heightened a wave of paranoia and made it all too clear how quickly the rules have changed. As the nation stood at its highest state of alert since World War II, everyone from presidential bodyguards to small-town cops were on guard. The FBI has shifted agents away from its investigation of the September 11 hijackings to concentrate on new threats. In New York, the National Guard searched the trunks of drivers entering Manhattan. In Washington, D.C., police have banned all trucks from arteries leading to the Capitol. Passengers on the Washington-to-New York shuttle were made to sip from their carry-on coffees before boarding. Alice Gold, a Los Angeles advertising consultant, moved her son's birthday party from Disneyland to a shopping mall, only to decide that even the mall was too risky.