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Media's relentless coverage stokes climate of fear and suspicion
What's behind the anthrax panic?

October 26, 2001 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS looks at who's exploiting the panic about anthrax--and why.

WITH THE Pentagon tightening its control on the flow of information, it's hard to learn anything from the mainstream media about the U.S. war on Afghanistan. But you can find out everything you want to know about the latest anthrax scare.

The U.S. remained in the grip of a panic about bioterrorism last week because of envelopes containing anthrax that showed up at media outlets in New York and Florida and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) office in Washington, D.C.

The hysteria seemed to build each day. Congress shut down for the week while the Capitol Building and nearby offices were tested. Pilots refused to fly planes after unexplained white powder was found on board.

But no one could top the frenzy of the media's "all anthrax, all the time" coverage. After a week of this, it took an effort to remember that only a very small number of people have been affected.

Three people have died of anthrax exposure--an employee of a Florida-based supermarket tabloid newspaper and two Washington, D.C., postal workers whose deaths were being linked to the Capitol anthrax outbreak as Socialist Worker went to press.

As of last weekend, less than a dozen people had tested positive for the disease, and most were well on the way to recovery.

Of course, the idea that anyone would be deliberately infected with a disease like anthrax is frightening. But this is hardly the mass threat that it's been made out to be. "Salmonella has probably killed more people in the past two weeks than anthrax has, and I'm sure that more have died in automobile accidents," wrote Salon magazine's Laura Miller in one of the tiny handful of articles to question the hysteria.

There was no evidence to connect the envelopes containing anthrax to Osama bin Laden or even to the air attacks of September 11. Earlier this year, the CIA reported that the al-Qaida network had only a "crude biological weapons capability."

Those wanting to make a connection were reduced to pointing out that the anthrax envelopes were mailed from New Jersey…a state that several September 11 hijackers had visited!

If bin Laden didn't fit the bill, there was another, more convenient target handy: Saddam Hussein. Iraq's government is at least known to have once possessed anthrax--thanks to the U.S. company American Type Culture Collection, which sold the regime a particularly deadly strain while the U.S. government was backing Iraq during the 1980s.

But following its defeat in the Gulf War, Iraq was required to submit to "the most stringent on-site inspection regime in the history of arms control," wrote Scott Ritter, who helped to lead the UN inspection teams. "The UN never once found evidence that Iraq had either retained biological weapons or associated production equipment or was continuing work in the field."

Nevertheless, hard-liners in the Bush administration seem determined to pin the blame on Iraq--to help build the case for expanding the U.S. government's war on Afghanistan. This is probably why it has been impossible to find a straight answer in the media about even basic issues--such as the quality of the powder sent to New York and Washington.

Central to the case against Iraq is the charge that the anthrax is "weapons-grade"--that is, a powder carefully refined until it will remain suspended in the air where its victims inhale it. Only a national government could make "weapons-grade" anthrax, declared the TV terrorism "experts."

Unless, they declared with equal certainty, it was a disgruntled scientist with access to relatively common lab equipment and the kind of machines used in manufacturing powdered food products.

None of the speculation makes sense, of course. But that isn't the point.

What the Washington establishment really cares about is the panic--the fear that it can exploit to promote an agenda of war and repression.

Feds put drug giant's profits first

THE BUSH gang is happy to encourage the panic about anthrax. But not if it costs big business.

The administration came down hard against proposals for the government to start stockpiling generic forms of the antibiotic Cipro, the drug most commonly recommended for treating anthrax.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters that the U.S. government wants enough Cipro to treat 12 million people for 60 days each. There's no way that the German drug giant Bayer, which holds the patent on Cipro, can produce that quantity of pills, even if it starts round-the-clock production for the next year and a half.

Drug makers producing generic Cipro could fill the gap--and at a much lower price.

Bayer charges about $350 for a month's worth of Cipro. The monthly dose of the generic costs $10.

But though U.S. officials claim that millions of lives could be at stake, "We have to be careful about patent protections," whined HHS spokesperson Kevin Keane. "There's a balance there."

There is a "balance" there--between corporate profits and people's lives.

The world's largest germ arsenal

ONE NEWSPAPER story last week insisted that the two countries with the largest stockpiles of anthrax were Russia and…Iraq. Any guess what country belongs on the list ahead of Iraq?

No one outside the Pentagon knows exactly how big, but the U.S. government's chemical and biological weapons arsenal is almost certainly the largest in the world.

In fact, the U.S. recently embarked on a new bio-weapons development program. As part of the plan, Pentagon scientists got the green light earlier this year to genetically engineer a new and more deadly variation of anthrax.

As usual, the official justification is that the U.S. needs to "defend" itself from attack. But given the opportunity to put some teeth into enforcing an international ban on biological weapons earlier this year, the U.S. said no.

In July, Donald Mahley traveled to Geneva to tell representatives of 55 nations that the U.S. would reject a draft agreement--seven years in the making--to enforce the ban. Among U.S. objections: The treaty would have allowed inspections of factories that could make biological weapons, a measure that chemical companies lobbied hard against.

New threats from the anti-abortion terrorists

DESPITE THE media's relentless coverage, it was easy to miss the bioterrorist threats made against abortion providers last week.

Some 100 family planning offices and abortion clinics in more than a dozen cities received envelopes containing a powdery substance. The accompanying letter read: "You have been exposed to anthrax. We are going to kill all of you. From the Army of God."

While the envelopes were harmless, the Army of God isn't. Numerous bombings, arson attacks and assassinations of abortion providers have been carried out in the group's name. The Army of God made a rash of similar threats in 1998 and 1999.

Yet the media--in their rush to link the anthrax scare to "Middle Eastern terrorists"--almost entirely dismissed the possibility that the perpetrators are American right-wingers. After all, the most recent experience with bioterrorism in the U.S. was the 1998 arrest of two men in Las Vegas--one of them a former member of the Aryan Nations--for possession of anthrax.

As left-wing radio broadcaster Laura Flanders wrote, the threats against abortion providers "remind one that terror in America didn't begin on September 11, and most of it is homegrown."

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