Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001

Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001

In the shadows of the 20th year since the Sept. 11 attacks, we approach another anniversary of terror: the anthrax attacks that began on Sept. 18, 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to two U.S. senators as well as several media offices, killing five people and infecting 17 others. Which brings me to this alternate history, for your consideration.

In this version, it turns out that Bush administration intelligence assessments about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program are spot-on. After al Qaeda murders some 3,000 Americans on 9/11, Hussein produces an anthrax variant that can inflict mass casualties on the homeland. A small band of terrorists carries the substance across our borders and exposes it at airports, train stations and hospitals. Within two years, the attack kills 660,000 Americans (220 times the number of fatalities on 9/11). It shuts down our economy, boards-up our businesses and forces us in and out of modern-day bomb shelters: our homes and apartments. Fox News even has a name for it, crawling relentlessly, ominously at the bottom of our screens: The Saddam Syndrome.

But wait! The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discovers a way to defeat the terror attack. All we have to do is wear masks and get vaccinated.

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Shockingly – unfathomably – Republican governors in Florida, Texas and elsewhere decide to do everything possible to weaken our defense against the bioterror attack. They prohibit federal mandates that will defend us from the Saddam Syndrome. Conservative media chimes-in, howling that the president’s efforts to provide for the common defense are “un-American.” Millions determine that protection is unpatriotic, that sending their kids to school defenseless against an act of terror is an act of virtue. 

In this alternate history, Republican politicians placate their political bases; but they have become supplicants to Saddam. In the name of freedom, they aid and abet the terror. The indisputable result is that their actions help to increase both the mass and destruction of Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction. An attack that most believed would last about a year lingers through a second summer…then fall…into another winter.

Imagine, if this scenario were real, the public vilification of these leaders. The press releases demanding investigations, impeachments, recalls. Thirty-second political ads are released with grainy images of, say, Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida school district to relax mask mandate for high school students Miami Herald: DeSantis descending into 'anti-vaxx Crazyville' Trump-endorsed candidate leading GOP field to replace Crist in Florida: poll MORE (R-Fla.) next to photographs of Saddam and Osama bin Laden; the words “TERRORIST” and “TRAITOR” flashing repeatedly; the blood-red line rising steadily to the top of the screen, indicating increased infections and deaths in Florida. The video shows DeSantis straining to explain why he didn’t protect his constituents from the biological attack.   

Now let’s return to reality. An act of terror, if not a terrorist act, has killed 660,000 Americans. Infections are again on the rise. Many hospitals are growing more crowded. Lives have been ruined and many will never be the same. What was supposed to be post-COVID is simply just another type of COVID. Last month’s jobs report was disappointing, and many ascribe it to anxiety over the delta variant of COVID. 

Why? There are various reasons. But principle among them is the duplicity of some elected officials who have facilitated the spread of COVID instead of defending against it; who are propelled not by the urgency of public health but by the uncontrollable impulse of private ambition; who have acted as political versions of Typhoid Mary.

Has American politics become so infected that in our fevered and delusional state we regard being an accomplice to terror as a sound strategy in a Republican presidential primary? Don’t we recognize the stunning and callous hypocrisy of leaders who supported going to war against Saddam Hussein (who didn’t have weapons of mass destruction) but are now at war with a federal government that labors to protect us from an actual agent of mass destruction?

Forget alternate history. At some point real histories will be written. And they will distinguish between those American leaders who protected and defended their constituents and those who invited in a pandemic of terror.   

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.