November 1, 2001

University, Professors Respond To Anthrax Scare, Bioterrorism

Print More

Recent attacks using anthrax have made both students and professors more aware of the threat of bioterrorism. Cornell professors teaching or conducting research in the fields of government, law, epidemiology, business and psychology provide insight into how the American public has responded to the attacks.

In interviews with The Sun, professors were vocal concerning what the government has done to investigate bioterrorism. Professors across the board agree that these threats of bioterrorism challenge basic systems of commerce and law, as well as how Americans conduct themselves during their everyday routines.

“It’s long been known that a single acute incident of trauma, like the Sept. 11 attacks, produces a very different response than living in a chronically threatening environment. If bioterrorism becomes a chronic condition of life, that will certainly influence people’s response to it,” said E.L. Vincent Prof. James Garbarino ’73, human development.

The degree to which people feel themselves directly connected to the threat influences their response to bioterrorism, according to Garbarino. People working for the postal service, in journalism or in the government feel more directly under attack than many people who are distanced from the threats, Garbarino explained.

“Right now there is a group of people who do not want to receive mail. You are going to see people abandoning commercial travel. But you are going to see things return to normal once people are no longer spending their afternoons watching media reports,” said Harold Bierman, the Nicholas Noyes Professor of business.

He added that exaggerated media reports provide a disservice to everyone by making them feel threatened, when in fact the attacks were directed at very particular targets rather than a general population.

“We need to restrict our diet of the news. Many people are watching the media continuously. By watching all the time you get an exaggerated sense of what’s going on around you,” said Garbarino.

“Exposure to news media feeds people’s sense of the world coming to an end. There is a difference between feeling anxiety and feeling fear. Fear can be dealt with and rationalized. Anxiety has to be neutralized,” said Prof. Garbarino.

“The fear that people felt as a result of bioterrorism can be characterized as an epidemic in itself. People’s understanding of the situation hasn’t caught up with their perception of it. It’s people’s responsibility to turn off the television or stop reading media reports when they realize it’s sloppy coverage,” said Genevieve Chase, public health research for the Epidemiological Bulletin for the PanAmerican Board of Health based in Washington D.C.

Many people are prone to ask what the government is doing domestically and internationally to curb any future bioterrorist attacks.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) act, passed last week by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 5, grants the federal government new investigative powers to collect information about terrorist and bioterrorist activities from voice and electronic mailboxes.

“Congress expanded the authority of the F.B.I. to conduct investigations into terrorist activities,” said Prof. Stephen Garvey, law.

Legislation prior to the USA PATRIOT act never kept pace with modern technologies such as e-mail or the Internet, according to a professor who asked to remain anonymous.

The increased surveillance capabilities of federal investigators will allow them to intercept e-mail messages or other forms of communication between terrorists to prevent the transaction of money, arms or biological weapons such as anthrax.

“The strain of anthrax, known as the Ames strain, that was found in the original case in Florida and in the NBC news mailroom [resembles strains] from a veterinary research laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Until 1996, when laws changed to prevent the unrestricted distribution of biological agents, almost anyone could call up and request samples for their own research,” explained Prof. Rose McDermott, government.

Now that the government has the authorization to intercept communications between terrorists operating in the United States, it is less likely that terrorists will be able to acquire dangerous biological agents, according to Garvey.

“It would be very difficult, even as a scientist, to get a hold of a strain of anthrax, or any microbe, that would be virulent enough to make people sick,” said Chase. “However, you can get it on the internet and buy it from another country,” she added.

The only countries besides the United States which have the facilities to produce a strain of anthrax with silica characteristics (as found at Senator Tom Daschle’s office) are the former Soviet Union and Iraq, according to McDermott. Investigators can find out where it was produced by analyzing the chemical make-up of the silica as well as the types of fillers and impurities of the odorless, colorless and very fine strain of anthrax discovered at Daschle’s office, McDermott added.

“As a result of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, all countries are making efforts to freeze accounts that fund terrorist activities,” said Prof. David Wippman, law. “This resolution is designed to prevent and suppress international financing of terrorist acts,”

Wippman added.

The professors and other experts interviewed agree that the expanded investigative powers of the FBI, in collaboration with the international efforts to curb terrorist activity outside of the United States are among the many steps being taken by the federal government to protect its citizens.

Archived article by Dan Webb