Anthrax Attacks Show Government Officials Made of (Flawed!) Human Material



“The federal government is supposed to protect us from terrorism.” This may have been a plausible theory at one time, but now, after a decade of goofs and lapses, it sounds more like the opening line of a late-night comedy routine. The latest revelation about government’s anti-terrorism programs makes for rather dark comedy indeed. The Department of Justice has just released a comprehensive, final report on the anthrax attacks that occurred in the United States in the fall of 2001. As the reader may recall, envelopes containing weapons-grade anthrax spores were mailed to media organizations and U. S. senators, resulting in the deaths of five people, and leading to the hospitalization of 17 others, and causing expensive cleanup efforts. Since the poisoned letters contained notes scrawled with “Allah is Great” and “Death to Israel,” these slogans suggested the perpetrator was a radical Muslim.

Well, he wasn’t. After an exhaustive FBI investigation, the Justice department has concluded that the spores came from a U. S. Army medical research facility, and that the person responsible was a scientist, Bruce Ivins, who worked there. So “the worst act of bioterrorism in U. S. history,” (as the Washington Post described it), proved to be the work of a U. S. government employee: a nightmare version of “I’m from government and I’m here to help you.”

The Justice Department concludes that Ivins’s motive was job protection, his way of calling attention to anthrax terrorism in order to save his career. The report explains: “The anthrax vaccine research program that Dr. Ivins had invested essentially his entire career of more than 20 years was in jeopardy of failure. The anthrax vaccine with which he was assisting was failing to meet potency standards and, absent some major breakthrough, may have been eliminated. . . the Next Generation Anthrax Vaccine, on which he was also working, had run its course at USAMRIID, leaving him potentially without anthrax research to do.”

Whatever his motives, it is clear that Ivins was mentally unbalanced. In the years leading up to the crime, Ivins was struggling with “paranoid personality disorder,” seeking professional treatment, and taking anti-psychotic drugs. One therapist working with him reported he had “a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans.” His psychiatrist called him “homicidal, [and] sociopathic with clear intentions.” Co-workers knew he was suffering from mental illness, but the government took no action to remove him from his highly sensitive, dangerous position. (Another instance of a government bureaucracy looking the other way with a mentally unbalanced official set the stage for Nidal Hasan’s massacre of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood last November). In July of 2008, as the FBI investigation closed in on him, Ivins committed suicide by taking a drug overdose.

The larger lesson here is that government officials can be very flawed individuals. We often forget this point in devising government programs, because we labor under what I call the “watchful eye illusion.” This is the idea that government is a god-like entity managed by superior people capable of watching over lesser human beings to keep them from harm. When aficionados of government action propose a new XYZ agency, they never add—as they should—“I realize that some of the people, perhaps the majority, staffing XYZ could be foolish, lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt, but I still think it would be a great agency.” In the grip of the watchful eye illusion, they have a childlike faith that every government program will be run by high-caliber individuals who always behave rightly.

Government officials exhibit all the flaws found in the human race. They can be greedy, careless, arrogant, stupid, or intolerant. As the Ivins case reminds us, they can even be homicidal maniacs.

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