Bioterrorist aims: death, panic, disorder

Balance: Anthrax attack demands action and information to sustain confidence.

October 24, 2001

WITH ANTHRAX confirmed as the killer of two postal workers in Washington, Americans and their government can no longer think of bioterrorism as an abstraction.

Anthrax spores were directed initially at print and electronic media outlets. But anyone who gets mail, not to speak of those who deliver it, falls within the sights of indiscriminate evildoers.

We are reluctant to think of ourselves as such, but we are all combatants and potential targets.

We are hurtling along the path of a new consciousness. We see the enemy operating far beyond the World Trade Center. What public official will now say something can't happen - or is unlikely to happen, as officials did in the wake of anthrax-laced mail in Capitol Hill offices? We're way past mere vulnerability.

And yet leaders still must find a balance between information and action and the potential for panic. No one should question the gravity of that task.

We assume every effort is being made to learn who is responsible. That task may be as difficult as smoking Osama bin Laden from his lair. Yet it must be done as quickly as possible, or the government will lose credibility. Getting people to desist in stockpiling antibiotics, for example, would be more difficult. The specter of a nation under siege will grow.

This is among the objectives of the perpetrators. They want to kill and by so doing show how the carnage of Sept. 11 can engulf us all.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge points out that we are at war on two fronts: in Afghanistan against the Taliban, and at home against persons unknown. We knew this, of course, but if we had been more solidly situated along the domestic front, we might have closed the sorting station in Washington immediately and put more people on protective therapy.

And we cannot imagine that anthrax will be the last thrust of the terrorists. Yes, we are finding our way through shadowy and threatening terrain. The hard and unavoidable truth is we need both speed and sound judgment. We won't always get that in war, so the public must respond with understanding, trust and resolve. Those traits are foundation stones of our people and, as such, key targets for the terrorists.

We can be buoyed by the determination of postal workers to carry on with their vital work. We are all asked to live our lives with an active sense of our status as soldiers on the second front.

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