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Whoís in charge?

Anthrax hysteria is sweeping the US, and our government is ill-equipped to deal with it

Respond to our editorial here in the Phoenix Forum

Who is responsible for the anthrax terror that has, as of todayís count, killed three, infected seven more, and exposed an additional unknown number? Who has threatened Congress, the White House, major media outlets, and a widening chunk of the postal system? Some criminologists say itís the work of copycat sickos trying to ride the wave of anxiety that has washed over the nation in the days since September 11. Analysts in the press and government suggest a link to Iraq. Even as the search for answers continues, one thing has become clear: the governmentís efforts to deal with this bioterror, no matter how sincere, represent an after-the-fact failure almost as grave as the intelligence screw-up that preceded the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

On Monday, we learned that anthrax spores had been found in a remote mail-handling facility for the White House. President Bush assured the public that he does not have anthrax. But he refused to say whether he had been tested. Why? Does he not want us to know when he was tested? That heís tested every day? That he hasnít been tested? (We now know that many White House staffers, and presumably the president, were tested and given Cipro on day one.)

In the meantime, the official response to the anthrax mailed to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle showed a top-down concern: politicians matter, postal workers donít. Immediately after the letter to Daschle was discovered, 2000 workers on Capitol Hill were tested for exposure to anthrax. Only 40 people were in the room when the letter was opened; others had merely been in the vicinity of the letter. The House shut down for business for an "environmental sweep." It took eight days before anyone thought to test the people who had actually handled the letter on its way to Daschleís office: employees of the Brentwood Road mail facility. Two of them are now dead. Two others are seriously ill. It remains to be seen how many others test positive for exposure, and how many more become sick.

"I think this whole thing could have been avoided," Patricia Johnson, president of the local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, told the Washington Post. "If I was a family member, Iíd sue the Postal Service....When it comes to postal employees, we are the last in any government agency that they care about."

This isnít the only example of inequitable treatment in the relatively short time weíve been dealing with the anthrax threat. Health officials made sure to test everybody at the New York Times when reporter Judith Miller opened a suspicious letter (which tested negative). Members of the media elite and Congress merit prompt attention. But postal workers in DC ó mostly working-class and African-American ó donít.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that officials are learning how to deal with bioterrorism on the fly. No kidding. Nearly a month into the anthrax crisis, itís clear that the Bush administration is ill-equipped to handle the situation. People are dead now who might still be alive if anyone had thought to test the postal workers. We want to know whoís making the decisions. Is there a central authority? Or is it random pockets of local law enforcement? And if there is no central authority, why? Whereís the Office of Homeland Security? Itís been 20 days since Robert Stevens died of inhalation anthrax in Florida, the first known case of the disease in the United States in nearly a quarter-century.

We want to know why officials disagree on whether the anthrax being sent through the mail has been deliberately manipulated, or "weaponized," so that itís easier to spread. Why have we been told by private-sector investigators like former UN weapons inspector Richard Spertzel that thereís no question the anthrax has been weaponized and that Iraq has to be considered a suspect? Why is Office of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge telling us otherwise? With all this confusion, why should we believe government officials who tell us not to stock up on antibiotics? And yet we also know that needlessly taking any antibiotic diminishes its effectiveness.

The feds donít know whatís going on, or if they do they donít want to tell us. After NBC news anchor Tom Brokawís assistant tested positive for the cutaneous form of the disease earlier in the month, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson took the opportunity to assure the public. "Our public-health system is on a heightened sense of alert," he told reporters. "We are responding very aggressively." That was October 13, before the two postal workers died. On Tuesday, Thompson said: "Weíre going to err on the side of caution and make sure people are protected." What assurances do any of us have that Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are going to protect the rest of us any better than they protected those two postal workers?

National Public Radio reported this week that many of the offices within our national health structure donít even have e-mail. Many donít have emergency plans. The infrastructure is nowhere near as solid as officials have led us to believe.

The CDC has tried to make excuses. "We had had no cases of inhalation anthrax in a mail-sorting facility," said CDC director Jeffrey Koplan. "There was no reason to think this was a possibility." Before September 11, there was no reason to think that hijackers would crash two jetliners into the World Trade Center, but they did. Why wouldnít the CDC bureaucrats assume the worst before people died? And if no one at the CDC was sounding the alarm, then why wasnít our terrorism czar on the case? Or someone from the FBI? Is there no one in a position of authority thinking this stuff through?

Bioterrorism is a new horror for the United States. Physicians across the country are educating themselves to recognize symptoms of anthrax exposure and smallpox. Americans are taking more care with their mail, reporting suspicious substances, cooperating with law enforcement as never before. But itís clear that the officials in charge are leaving a lot of slack. Bush faltered in the first days following September 11, until he addressed Congress and found the voice to lead. Letís hope he finds his footing on this issue, and fast.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a] or post your comments in the Phoenix forum.

Issue Date: October 25 - November 1, 2001

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