Friday, February 19, 2010


The FBI officially ended its investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks today, after determining that a single Army scientist, acting alone, was responsible.  He suffered from significant mental illness and had worked on the vaccine against anthrax.  The letters included in the mailings, which at first blush appeared to be from a radical Muslim terrorist group, contained elaborate code that referenced two colleagues with whom he was obsessed.  There will be no arrest and no trial in this case.  The scientist the FBI says is responsible killed himself in 2008.

The mailer, as I'm sure you recall, wreaked havoc on the country, and particularly on the government and media outlets, by sending two batches of letters laced with anthrax through the postal system.  Five people died and 22 more were infected.  The majority of those infected were not targets themselves, but postal workers or people whose mail was contaminated as it passed through a contaminated facility.  Buildings were evacuated for anthrax contamination, both real and suspected, and Americans were literally frightened to touch their mail for weeks.

Given that, I suppose we should feel relief that we have gotten to the bottom of this and found that one person, who is no longer a threat to us, is responsible for the chaos of the fall of 2001.  He acted alone, he is dead, and we are not in danger.

I suspect I'm not alone, however, in finding this ending most unsatisfying.  We are used to big news stories having big conclusions.  It doesn't seem right that someone could single-handedly hold the entire country hostage, and even less right that he will never be brought to justice.  That's not how it plays out in the movies.

There is more than a need for dramatic closure in our news stories, however, driving this feeling of letdown.  There is also a sense that, although this case has been brought to an end, and with it the accompanying feeling that we are in danger from the anthrax mailer, a conclusion like this actually leaves us feeling still unnerved. 

The fact is, a single person did terrorize our country.  The fact is, if he could do it there are probably other people out there who could, too.  That makes this neither an isolated incident nor a coordinated campaign which we might be able to learn to live with, but a truly random act of violence which could occur, or not, at any time.  If there is one thing our minds do not like is unpredictable danger.  It leaves us always vaguely afraid and on edge.  In that sense, this single, seriously ill scientist has pulled off one of the most successful terrorist attacks in United States history.


Nance said...

The Unibomber did a pretty good job of single-handed terrorism, too, but we got the satisfaction of seeing that single shot of him looking crazed in his orange prison jumpsuit...over and over and over.

Suicide almost always leaves the living to struggle on without closure.

Thanks for posting this. In this news-driven, 24-Hr-Trauma world, I'd almost forgotten about the anthrax scare; I'd moved on to Trauma Du Jour.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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