The Case for a Domestic Anthrax Culprit
The Threat to America's Lifelines
Millions of Afghans Face Starvation
Reverend Jerry Can't Leave Gays Alone

The Case for a Domestic Anthrax Culprit
Writing's Off the Wall

What's to prevent a bomb in Penn Station? Nothing.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
What's to prevent a bomb in Penn Station? Nothing.

The most notable aspect of Osama bin Laden's weekend video—broadcast everywhere but here —is the absence of any mention of anthrax. As in the past, Bin Laden pictures the world torn between the forces of the Western crusaders and Islam. He approvingly mentions the September 11 attacks and describes in detail the different assaults by the West on various nations, dating the current crusade back to the end of World War I. But nowhere is there a mention of anthrax.

With no group claiming responsibility for the recent bioterrorism attacks, the anthrax sleuths remain baffled. "I haven't a clue, honestly," one official told the Los Angeles Times over the weekend. Officials in Washington are so scared themselves, according to the paper, that some are stockpiling antibiotics and have stopped using the city's subway system—a reassuring note to their fellow government workers.

Meanwhile federal officials say they're trying to create a profile from the three letters sent to political and media figures. Ayman El-Desouky, a Harvard Arabic instructor, explained to the Voice that it's unlikely an Arabic speaker wrote the notes. For starters, El-Desouky questions the misspelling of penicillin. He says an Arab would more likely render the antibiotic as "penisleen" rather than "penacilin," as found in the letters. Then there is the date, with "09" for September. "A person from the Arab world would never use zero like that," he explained.

El-Desouky suspects, as have others, that the author was posing as an Arab. The anthrax-laced letters struck him as "strings of slogans" and uncharacteristic of Arabic writing. To him, it sounded like the author was trying to meet expectations of what a Middle Eastern terrorist would write. Radical Muslims would have included much more "religious text, more of a message," he said.

Even the analysis-thwarting brevity of the letters made him suspicious. "It would be hard for a native speaker to be very brief," he said. A typical Arabic sentence might be "at least two pages long, maybe 750 words."

The Threat to America's Lifelines
From Natural Gas to Trains

The efforts to protect America's infrastructure from terrorists grow more absurd by the day. Even as the country strains to get a grip on concentrated points like airports and nuclear facilities, its more expansive systems remain at great risk.

Take Amtrak, for instance, which has been doing a land-office business since Americans realized the vulnerability of planes. What's to prevent a terrorist from walking onto a train with a bomb, or detonating one in Washington's Union Station or New York's Penn Station? The short—and horrifying—answer is nothing. Amtrak never searches passengers' luggage. The company relies on employees with cell phones and walkie-talkies to notice suspicious activity. Conductors are in constant communication with the engineer, who in turn talks to the railroad operator. Feel better yet? "There is nothing to stop people from damaging the tracks," spokesperson Kevin Johnson said. Nor is there anything to "stop people from getting on board with explosives."

Then there are the nation's natural gas pipelines, increasingly a primary source of electricity. Lines built before 1970 were poorly made, with incomplete welding of seams. Newer pipes are poorly maintained, and as a result they're corroded—a recipe for apocalyptic explosions.

The pipelines crisscrossing several states and scores of communities are monitored from distant outposts, according to Carl Weimer, executive director of the Washington State pipeline watchdog SAFE Bellingham. "The control station for Bellingham is hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City, and there were proposals to move it to Tulsa, Oklahoma—thousands of miles away," Weimer said. Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Houston are all major hubs for U.S. pipelines.

But distance isn't the only problem. You can't just walk out and turn off the gas. "It takes hours to get to the valve and to close it," said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline consulting firm Accufacts. "Federal law says you need valves, especially in densely populated areas, but it doesn't say whether they have to be manually or remote-controlled."

Weak federal regulations for natural gas pipeline safety leave individual companies to their own devices. "Some of them let their pipelines go until something pops," Weimer said.

Between 1986 and 1999, popping natural gas pipelines killed 296 people and injured 1357 others. In August 2000, 10 members of a family were killed in southern New Mexico by a pipeline explosion that left a crater 86 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. Flames 600 feet high melted tents and camping gear, and transformed sand into glass.

Millions of Afghans Face Starvation
Bombs, Not Food

The stage is set for catastrophe in the Afghan war, with the mass starvation of refugees this winter. There are already 400,000 Afghans suffering acute food shortages because of drought, failed harvests, and a decade of fighting. Five hundred thousand more will be cut off when the snows start in mid November. All in all, Oxfam estimates, 7.5 million people are endangered.

The UN says 50,000 tons of food must get into Afghanistan in the next month. During the month of October less than 13,000 tons have made it through—and that's counting everything from the UN, Oxfam, and other charities. Recent American bombing of relief buildings led to shipments being canceled or delayed. "Many of World Food Programme's staff, labourers, and truckers are afraid to load and unload food, or to drive it deep into Afghanistan," Oxfam writes. The Taliban's disgusting practice of extorting truckers carrying food across the Pakistan border further hampers the humanitarian effort. American air deliveries, say aid workers on the ground, are of little effect.

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