The Book Club

Terror and the Free Press

Dear Gideon,

Ratings, ratings! Tut, tut–you foreign policy masterminds are so desperate to get back on the front pages. Who cares if we’re at the top or bottom of Slate’s home page? This issue is not for Hollywood. This topic is not for Tina Brown’s new Chat magazine, or whatever it’s called. This is a serious and urgent matter we’re discussing here, and I must say that apart from today’s market-driven lapse, you have performed brilliantly.

But let’s stay the course. Didn’t you read your ForeignAffairs, in which the former director of the CIA, John Deutch (and other worthies), says that if we get this one wrong, it could be like Pearl Harbor–dividing America into a “before and after”? Deutch says that the danger of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons being used by terrorists against America poses the greatest threat to security of this nation and its allies (and that’s me, Gideon) since the Cuban missile crisis.

Now, clever people like Falkenrath say this is a “low-probability, high-impact” threat we’ve got here. But he’s clearly wrong. It’s quite the opposite. Right now, we have a higher probability and lower impact problem.

I speak, of course, about hoax anthrax threats.

A growing number of unhinged persons are sending packets of some harmless powder through the mail, saying they are filled with deadly anthrax spores. You must have read about these threats. The hoax calls and letters have gone mostly to abortion clinics, but also to department stores, newspapers, government offices, courts, and even teachers. Two 14-year-old schoolboys in Indiana, I think it was, who wanted to get out of taking a test sent their teacher an envelope of cinnamon power, hoping, apparently, to give the teacher a shock that would keep him or her away from school for a day.

On Christmas Eve last year, 200 people were doing their last-minute shopping at a department store in Palm Desert, California, when police surrounded the building and herded everyone into a parking lot, ordering them to remove their clothes before hosing them down with a bleach solution. An anonymous caller to 911 had claimed that spores of anthrax had been released into the air in the store. The next day, 800 young people were partying at the Glass House Club, a dance hall in Pomona near Los Angeles, when police burst in. Another 911 caller had warned of anthrax spores in the air-conditioning system. That was a hoax, too.

If the hoaxes had come all at Christmas and all in California, one might have reasonably supposed it was a California problem; that the senders were pernicious Hollywood pranksters. But anthrax hoaxes are nationwide and currently running at one a week. They’re also extremely expensive. Testing the air and decontaminating buildings and people can cost as much as half a million dollars per hoax. “Anthrax has really taken off nationwide,” says an FBI spokesman. “I don’t know why, but it’s one of those sexy terms of the ‘90s.”

I know why. The threat merchants have placed the word all over the papers and on TV.

But what can be done?

The other day I was in London talking with Scotland Yard officials about the problem of hoax bomb threats–a serious issue in Britain after three decades of IRA bombs. The threats come in clusters, they said, whether real or imagined. One hoax begets another. “So, what do you do?” I asked. “We have mature discussions with newspaper and TV editors and try to limit the reporting of the hoaxes. It sort of works,” they replied, with a wink.

“Couldn’t happen in America,” I said. “First Amendment and all that.”

But I wonder if any U.S. national security types have ever tried to talk to editors or editorial boards about how to curb the anthrax hoaxes? And, if so, what did they say?

Our authors are fond of quoting the famous dictum of terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, who used to say terrorists aim to harass not to kill–“they want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” People who send anthrax hoaxes through the mail are engaging in a form of terror. Might press freedom be on your blacklist, by the way?

P.S. Do you think there’s any chance my mention of all these sensational hoaxes will keep us on the front page?