The Case for a Domestic Anthrax Culprit

Writing’s Off the Wall

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.

With international opinion turning against the U.S. policy of sustained air strikes, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people starving will be the nail in the Bush administration’s coffin. Already Britain, France, and Germany face growing demonstrations. Starvation, not military goals, will be the factor that sends thousands of American ground troops into the country. Even should the Northern Alliance pull itself together and march into Kabul, no one in his right mind will ever trust them to run the place, let alone hand out food rather than steal it. It’s all but inevitable that American troops, tidied up under some UN banner, will run Kabul and other cities and towns for many months if not years to come.

As for food shortages being a temporary problem to be solved in the coming spring, forget it. During the war against the Soviet Union, much of Afghanistan’s agricultural infrastructure, including irrigation systems, was destroyed. Peasants traditionally have made money by growing poppies for opium. But our own State Department confirms the Taliban stamped out much of that farming, driving the business into the lands held by the Northern Alliance and into Tajikistan, where Russian soldiers guarding the border make their money trading in contraband. With no substitute crop, small farmers in Afghanistan are desperate.

The best an Afghan peasant can now hope for is to find a trucker willing to smuggle his family into one of the Afghan communities in Iran. The fee is so enormous a farmer can never pay it, so he pawns a daughter against the price of the ride. In theory, once he pays off the loan he can reclaim his daughter. But that’s an unlikely prospect, and the daughter more often becomes a permanently indentured servant, otherwise known as a slave.

Reverend Jerry Can’t Leave Gays Alone

Osama bin Falwell

Christer nuts on the right wing of the Republican Party still can’t believe the World Trade Center attack wasn’t the work of liberals and pervs. In the days immediately following September 11, the Reverend Jerry Falwell said he was sorry for having blamed the attacks on pro-choice activists, the ACLU, People for the American Way, feminists of all sorts, and gay people. But the fundraising potential of such a remark just can’t be let go. Now the Falwell ministries are accusing “liberals, and especially gay activists,” of engaging in “a vicious smear campaign to discredit” the preacher, according to a press release from the group Americans for Separation of Church and State.

“Liberals of all stripes, especially in the media, have seized on this opportunity to trash Dad’s deeply held Christian beliefs and to literally attack him day and night,” said Jonathan Falwell.

The willingness of charities to even consider extending aid to those who lost same-sex partners puts the religious hard-liners over the top. “[Relief] organizations should be first giving priority to those widows who were at home with their babies, and those widowers who lost their wives,” said the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. “It should be given on the basis and priority of one man and one woman in a marital relationship.”

Wendy Wright of the conservative Concerned Women of America told the Voice, “There’s no reason to change the definition of family unless you have an agenda. There’s no question that homosexual groups are behind this agenda that harms families.”

Additional reporting: Sarah Park, Camelia Fard, and Meritxell Mir