Monday, September 18, 2006

The other terror anniversary

One week ago, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the nation was treated to a veritable orgy of remembrance in the national media: the networks, cable, and the press all were busy regaling us with reminders of the Islamist radicals who attacked us that day. Politicians rather predictably joined in, most notably George W. Bush, who used what should have been a solemn occasion to bash Democrats and promote his own agenda.

In rather stark contrast, today also marks the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that followed -- the anthrax letters mailed to a variety of media figures and liberal senators, killing five people and convulsing the nation with fear of similar attacks elsewhere for several weeks afterward.

But there are no network specials planned. No wreath-laying by the president. No ABC docudramas blaming the Clinton administration with made-up sequences. No discussion of the implications of these attacks in the "war on terror."

The last of these, really, is quite telling -- because the implications are profound. And until we confront them, our "war on terror" will remain little more than the political marketing campaign that it has been ever since 9/11.

The scarcity of media coverage of the anniversary is noteworthy. So far, I've been able to uncover only an an MSNBC piece by one of the victims -- a remarkable and read-worthy piece, incidentally, mostly because it gives us a haunting portrait of the kind of devastation the attack wrought on those victims -- and a somewhat sketchy remembrance from the Houston Chronicle.

The initial uproar, you'll recall, occurred not only because it came so close on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, but also because the killer used cover letters clearly intended to cast suspicion on Islamist radicals; however, this was done so clumsily that only the most gullible among us (more on that later) would fall for it. And, as with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, most of the initial suspicion fell on the Arab world, and Iraq in particular.

Problem is, just as in Oklahoma, it soon became apparent that this was an act of domestic terrorism. Interest in the case waned, particularly from an administration intent on waving Islamist radicals in our faces as the most grave threat to confront the nation since Hitler.

Because it was clearly an attack by domestic terrorists -- and most likely, in fact, someone with right-wing sensibilities -- I continued to post on the case, including here, here, here, and here. And though the reportage has continued to taper off to virtual nothingness, I've continued to track the matter in the intervening years. I've also written about the case in the context of the administration's handling of domestic-terrorism issues, particularly in my discussions of terrorism as an asymmetrical threat, as well as similar cases of Bush administration bungling and the right's predilection for casting terrorism as a phenomenon related mostly to brown-skinned foreigners.

Only two newspapers provided dedicated coverage to following up the matter and trying to get to the bottom of the case: the Baltimore Sun, whose reporter, Scott Shane, remains among the most credible in dealing with the case; and the Hartford Courant, whose reportage produced some of the most interesting possibilities regarding likely suspects. Salon subsequently picked up on these reports and ran a good rundown of the results -- though it has done little with it subsequently.

Probably the most complete compilation of information on the anthrax case was provided by an amateur named Ed Lake, whose Web site dedicated to the anthrax case is noteworthy for not only being comprehensive, but even-handed and thoroughly reasoned. As with many of us who have examined the evidence, Lake finds the claims that cast suspicion on scientist Stephen Hatfill -- whose lawsuit against his accusers is now before the courts -- poorly grounded and agenda-driven.

Indeed, agendas have been in play throughout much of the subsequent discussion of the anthrax case. The white-supremacist National Vanguard, for instance, trotted out a theory (loosely -- very, very loosely -- based on the Courant investigation) that the attack was actually the work of Israeli intelligence agencies.

And then there are folks like Michelle Malkin and Laurie Mylroie, the wingnut whose cockamamie conspiracy theories -- later completely disproven -- helped fuel the invasion of Iraq. Determined from the start to link Iraq to the anthrax, they still haven't given up.

Today, Malkin posted one of the blogosphere's only remembrances of the anthrax attacks, and used it to push this line of theorization. She cites a Joseph Farah piece in the far-right WorldNetDaily, which regurgitates the claim that bentonite was found in the anthrax samples, thereby definitively linking it to Saddam Hussein's operations.

Problem is, the bentonite theory was completely discredited in relatively short order by the scientists examining the anthrax. As Lake says:
Someone who believed or wanted people to believe there was bentonite in the Daschle anthrax forgot the primary rule for getting people to believe a theory: Don't create a theory which can be scientifically disproven.

It's not surprising, I suppose, that we should find Malkin once again promoting phony, discredited information from extremist sources. After all, it's something she specializes in.

Other agendas, unfortunately, have also played a significant role in our failure to track down and identify the killer. Foremost among these have been the Bush administration's agenda, whose failures in the case are probably not something it wants to remind the public about, especially since its incompetence has become an increasing subject of discussion in recent years.

More to the point, Bush's dedication to using the "war on terror" as justification for promoting nearly every component of its political agenda has led it to promulgate the notion that terrorism is primarily a product of turban-clad foreigners.

After all, it probably doesn't help build a case for invading Iraq and then maintaining a permanant force there when the reality that we have our own pack of eager and willing white terrorists is placed before the public, does it? Nor, for that matter, does it help make the case that "Islamofascism" is our most dire enemy, when in fact the terrorists most likely to aid these radical fundamentalists are our own radical fundamentalists.

More precisely, these are the terrorists most likely, like the anthrax killer, to pggibyback off of large-scale terror attacks like 9/11, creating an "echo" effect that heightens and deepens the nation's sense of fearfulness.

That's how terrorism is supposed to work: It's not the actual damage it inflicts -- say, the 3,000 deaths on 9/11 -- but our reaction to them that is most significant. If we react fearfully, panicked into invading other nations and taking out our anger on the perceived perpetrators with acts of even greater and more resonant violence, then the terrorists' objectives are being met. So far, we're doing a great job all around of playing into their hands.

It's not, as I've said before, that domestic terrorism should be the focus of our anti-terrorist program. Rather, the failure to focus on it at all, to give it any kind of serious role in the "war on terror," leaves us vulnerable in a way that also reveals the incoherence of our antiterrorism policy.

After all, the killer who had the entire nation on edge in the wake of 9/11, like Osama bin Laden himself, is still at large. And it is equally telling that no one in the Bush administration seems to consider finding either of them a significant priority.

UPDATE: Tara Smith at Aetiology has a rundown on just how poorly the administration has responded to the need to prepare a biological stockpile for responding in the event of another attack.

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