Perceptions of the Terrorist Threat and the Anthrax Attacks:
A few weeks ago, the Justice Department was preparing to indict Bruce Ivins, a biodefense scientist, for the 2001 Anthrax attacks. The government's apparent theory was that Ivins launched the attacks to make his field of research of more important (and perhaps to make money from some patents he held in the area). Ivins committed suicide before being indicted, and DOJ has now released a redacted version of the documents it had on Ivins that it believes show he was responsible for the attacks.

  Assuming that DOJ was right that Ivins and Ivins alone was behind the attacks, the anthrax attacks provide a fascinating example of how perceptions of the terrorist threat are formed. Back in October 2001, shortly after 9/11, the Anthrax attacks were front-page news. Five people died, and many high-level government employees were treated to a round of Cipro treatments in case they had been infected. In a nutshell, a lot of important people were seriously freaked out.

  Perhaps the most important personal reaction to the 2001 Antrax attacks was that of Vice President Cheney. According to Jane Mayer's new book, the anthrax attacks had a major effect on Cheney. He thought Al Qaeda was behind them, and at one point he even thought that he personally had received a lethal dose of anthrax. Soon after the attacks, Cheney started spending time at an "undisclosed location" in case Washington DC was obliterated: the threat of massive casualties from such an attack helped propel Cheney's sense that strong and uncompromising countermeasures in the war on terror were necessary. According to some reports, Cheney was so worried about a biological weapon attack after the 2001 anthrax episode that he pushed for mandatory inoculation against smallpox even though it would have led to many American deaths from side-effects.

  I think it's interesting to compare the impact of the October 2001 Anthrax attacks to the impact of the December 2001 shoe-bomber, Richard Reid. Reid actually was an Al Qaeda member: He actually did try to blow up a plane using a bomb on board. And yet my sense is that the Reid episode had a much lesser impact on public perceptions of the Al Qaeda threat than did the Anthrax attacks. Why is that? I think part of it is that the anthrax attacks were unsolved: Back in 2001-02, when perceptions were formed, the source of the anthrax attacks remained mysterious and therefore threatening. The attacks could be anywhere, at anytime. In contrast, Reid was identified and stopped, and he put a human face on the attack. In the public mind, Reid became just a strange Muslim dude who tried to light his shoe on fire.

  Part of it is also that the anthrax attacks appeared successful. My sense is that the public mind is over-influenced by attacks that seem successful and under-influenced by the ones that don't; near misses don't register very much in the public mind, while lucky hits register as if they were predestined. The contrast between the public reaction to the 1993 World Trade Center attacks and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks reinforce this. Both were efforts by Al Qaeda cells to bring down the World Trade Center buildings: The first failed and the second succeeded. My sense is that a lot of people saw the 1993 attacks that failed to bring down the Towers as the work of a few nuts with a truck. In contrast, the 2001 attacks that succeeded registered in the public mind as the work of brilliant terrorist masterminds.

  Anyway, I don't have any grand theoretical claim here. I just think it's interesting to reflect on what events trigger what threat perceptions, and how hard it is for us as members of the public to assess the threat based on what we can see.