August 22, 2011

Danger from within

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When a series of anthrax-filled letters appeared in the U.S. right after the unimaginable tragedy of September 11, the powers that be were misinformed and easily swayed. In American Anthrax, noted anthrax expert Jeanne Guillemin takes a step back and examines the personal problems and bureaucratic missteps lost in the cloud of fear and panic. It’s a riveting—and sometimes frightening—read.

Guillemin expresses her key points simply, allowing for a grimacing page-turner. Decision-makers were in foreign territory. For example, after anthrax was first reported at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., the building remained open for days. Employee weren’t tested for anthrax until October 18, a week after the suspicious letter arrived. As the concern over biological warfare mounted, the federal government pushed for mass smallpox vaccination, even though the Dryvax vaccine had serious side effects. There was widespread misunderstanding over how much anthrax was harmful and the origin of the material inside the letters.

Regarding the latter, key experts convinced influential figures that the anthrax was from a foreign source, a completely false assertion. Both parties got what they wanted: Along with unlikely doomsday scenarios, the U.S. got an excuse to invade Iraq. And civilian biodefense research and development became a profitable business, as its federal budget line surged from $271 million in 2001 to $3.74 billion in 2003.

Meanwhile, Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, became the FBI’s top suspect behind the fatal letters. But it took years for investigators to zero in on him, mainly because testing methods had to improve and too many people overlooked Ivins’ bizarre pattern of behavior.

There was no satisfying resolution to the anthrax scare. Ivins committed suicide in 2008, before any suspicions could be confirmed in court, and the government’s approach to bioterrorism, Guillemin says, remains misguided. It’s still “fixated on the idea of foreign bioterrorism—almost as if no greater threat to national health exists,” which stops us from seeking “more positive policies.” Guillemin’s wonderful book provides some clarity so that we can avoid making the same mistakes twice. After all, the room for error fits inside a casket.

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