The Year in Terror



A week after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a letter filled with anthrax spores was sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. Within the next month, envelopes containing this same highly refined strain of anthrax had arrived at a tabloid publisher in Boca Raton, Florida, at CBS headquarters in New York, and at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s Washington offices. Though addressed to political and media figures, the anthrax letters contaminated the mail-sorting equipment they passed through, leaving mail carriers and millions of ordinary Americans vulnerable to anthrax exposure. By the end of November, 18 people had contracted anthrax, and five had died. The dead included two D.C. mailmen, a 94-year-old Connecticut woman, and a New York City hospital worker who had fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. The images of frightened postal workers waiting in line for antibiotics, and of people handling their mail with plastic gloves, reinforced the public’s sense of helplessness in the face of bioterrorism, which many feel will be the next phase of the unseen war against the U.S.


Minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport, American Airlines Flight 587 broke apart and plummeted into the Queens neighborhood of Belle Harbor. All 260 passengers on board, and five residents on the ground, were killed. The excruciating image of another airliner falling out of a clear New York sky just two months after the September 11 attacks fueled fears of new acts of terrorism. All airports and major bridges were immediately shut down. Cruelly, the crash again took its victims from New York City; most passengers on the Santo Domingo-bound plane were from the working-class Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Belle Harbor itself was estimated to have lost nearly 100 people—including over 70 firefighters—at the World Trade Center. Having ruled out the possibility of a bomb on board the plane, the crash was eventually blamed on a structural failure in the aircraft’s tail.


In the days following the attacks, U.S. flight attendants appeared regularly on television to declare that lax airport screening made flying unsafe. So unsafe, they said, that they had instructed their own families not to travel by plane. They seemed to be speaking for an anxious public, which had all but abandoned flying as a means of transportation. On November 16, after weeks of rancorous debate, Congress passed the Airport Security Federalization Act, which prescribed new screening processes designed to make it all but impossible to get on a plane with a weapon. Just five weeks later, however, British citizen Richard Reid managed to board American Airlines Flight 63 with enough explosives in his sneakers to blow up the Miami-bound plane. Midway through the flight, Reid, whom U.S. officials would later link to Al Qaeda cells in Europe, attempted to set off the bomb by igniting a wire protruding from his shoe. He was subdued by fellow passengers and flight attendants and the flight was escorted to Boston by F-15 fighter jets. Americans questioned how Reid, whose suspicious behavior had led airport officials to bar him from a flight only a day before, could have been allowed on the plane.


“Wall Street Journal” correspondent Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, while investigating “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s ties to radical Islamic groups. In the following days, news organizations received e-mails and photographs from Pearl’s captors accusing the reporter of being a CIA agent and threatening his death unless their demands, which included the repatriation of Pakistani prisoners and the release of prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay, were met. Secretary of State Colin Powell pressured America’s new ally, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, to rescue Pearl. Americans helplessly watched the story unfold. Many felt that by targeting a journalist, the kidnappers had sent yet another message of defiance to a society priding itself on a free and adversarial press. But it was the videotape of Pearl’s brutal murder by near-decapitation—delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in February—that most horrified people and reminded them of how committed America’s enemies are.


Newly minted Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge unveiled a color-coded warning system designed to alert law enforcement agencies to possible terror attacks. Modeled on a nuclear attack warning system from the 1950s, the program frightened more people than it calmed. Ridge put the country at yellow status (“elevated risk”) and said it would be years before America could drop its guard. Throughout 2002, dozens of nebulous warnings about possible attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge, on nuclear power plants, and on reservoirs continued to be publicized. On Memorial Day weekend alone, the FBI issued dozens of alerts involving tall buildings, the Statue of Liberty, and subway systems. Yet no domestic threat ever materialized. To some observers, the timing and volume of the alerts suggested that the White House was attempting to quiet those lawmakers critical of September 11’s intelligence failures.

Return to “Things We Lost in the Fire: While the Ruins of the World Trade Center Smoldered, the Bush Administration Launched an Assault on the Constitution” by Alisa Solomon