The 2001 Outbreak: New Hoaxes and Public Anxiety
Although the anthrax hoaxes peaked in 1998-1999, they never entirely
disappeared, as the abortion clinic incidents illustrate. The government
emphasis on the extreme threat of anthrax terrorism coupled with the intense
media coverage of events like the Larry Wayne Harris arrests and the anthrax
hoaxes themselves created an intense national anxiety about biological warfare
that culminated with the October 2001 national anthrax crisis.
The crisis began in Boca Raton, Florida, where Robert Stevens, a 63-year old
photo editor for a tabloid newspaper, was admitted to the hospital in early
October and later diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. He died on October 5. Three
days later officials announced that Ernesto Blanco, a 73-year old mailroom
employee in the building, had anthrax spores in his nasal passages. Moreover,
spores had been found on Stevens’ computer keyboard. On October 10, a third
person was hospitalized and the case became a federal criminal investigation.
With startling rapidity, anthrax contaminated letters then showed up in
Washington, D.C., and New York City, with political leaders and media figures
being the primary targets. Postal workers in facilities that had handled
anthrax-contaminated letters began testing positive for—and dying of—the
Almost as soon as the anthrax incidents began occurring, a second wave of
anthrax hoaxes commenced. The victims in this second wave were much the same
as in the first: government buildings, abortion clinics, schools, and a variety
of miscellaneous targets. Some of the hoaxes, such as the abortion clinic
hoaxes, gave every indication of being as planned and as purposeful as those in
the first wave. Others have been opportunistic or impulsive. One example is the
disturbing case of a Los Angeles fire captain arrested for sending a threatening
letter with a suspicious powder to a law firm that had represented his ex-wife
during their divorce (the letter did not use the word ‘anthrax’). Only weeks
before, the captain had served with a crisis intervention team at the World
Trade Center following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The perpetrator or perpetrators at this point of the actual anthrax incidents
are completely unknown (as is the identity of most of the hoaxers). The main
lines of speculation point fingers at international terrorists on the one hand
and domestic extremists on the other. At first, "expert" speculation
concentrated on possible international connections, not surprising in light of
the September 11 terrorist attacks and the trauma they are still causing, as
well as the puzzling coincidence involving the wife of an employee at the Boca
Raton building attacked by anthrax who brokered rental apartments for two of the
September 11 hijackers.
More recently, perhaps simply because of a lack of additional clues or
evidence, speculation is leaning toward a domestic source. However, the
possibility of a non-ideological criminal perpetrator cannot be ignored, either.
Though the identity of the perpetrator remains unknown, the intent
seems to be much clearer. America’s first anthrax terrorist event was designed
to cause terror, not mass casualties. An anonymous figure mailed
anthrax-laden letters to several strategically selected destinations. This is a
poor way to cause mass casualties: the number of people likely to be exposed to
the agent is limited; the recipient has every chance of becoming suspicious of
the letter and not opening it in the first place; and an envelope containing
anthrax is probably most likely to cause cutaneous anthrax, the most diagnosable
and treatable form of the disease. The perpetrator may or may not have thought
about the possibility that spores might leak through the envelopes and
contaminate the postal system.
The fact remains that the anthrax incidents so far have not caused mass
What these incidents have caused, and what it seems certain that they
were intended to cause, is panic and fear. In every city and town across the
country, frightened citizens have contacted public health authorities and law
enforcement about suspicious powders they have seen, including sometimes items
such as spilled laundry detergent found in their own homes. Some municipalities
have experienced hundreds of calls. Many citizens are afraid to open the mail at
work or at home, even though the possibility that someone may have mailed them
anthrax remains overwhelmingly low.
The result of the recent incidents, as well as the attendant hoaxes, which
provide a "force multiplier" effect, is that Americans are being
targeted with a particular terrorist tactic precisely because in recent years
the nation demonstrated that it is uniquely vulnerable to such an attack.
The nation was vulnerable not in terms of critical infrastructure or public
health infrastructure, but rather psychologically. Regardless of whether the
perpetrator will turn out to be linked to international terrorism, to a domestic
anti-government or hate group, or to an unaffiliated psychopath, constituents of
all three categories can hardly help but have noticed our continued
vulnerability in this area.