Congress has legitimately spent millions of dollars to protect its people and facilities against terrorism, including chemical and biological attack, but the discovery of an envelope containing the toxin ricin shows that nothing is ever enough. Welcome again to the 21st century.
Fortunately, no one was harmed as a result of the dispatch of a poisoned letter to the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.). Senate officials and the Capitol Police acted swiftly to shut down the Senate office buildings and their ventilation systems, suspend mail deliveries and begin checking unopened mail for more contaminants. The Capitol remains open, and the incident hasn’t affected House operations. This obviously isn’t a routine occurrence, but Congress has responded to it efficiently and without panic.
And yet, it’s a deeply troubling development. Federal investigators never caught the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax mail attack directed at then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). A powdery substance has been detected at a postal facility in Wallingford, Conn., that was involved in the anthrax scare. There’s enough coincidence involved to suggest either that the anthrax attacker has switched to ricin or that a copycat is on the loose — this time using a substance that can’t be neutralized by the mail irradiation system in place since 2001. Ricin is a toxin, not a live bacteria or virus capable of being killed by radiation.
The ricin attack is also troubling because, as with international airline alerts over the holidays and again last week, terrorists are capable of disrupting normal life and inflicting economic damage. The 2001 incident shut down the Hart Senate Office Building for more than three months, until January 2002, and the decontamination process, involving the use of chlorine dioxide gas, cost approximately $27 million. Because ricin is not a living organism, post-attack measures won’t be as dire this time, but damage has been done. It’s gratifying that Congress has taken this attack more or less “in stride,” but it’s still unnerving that someone is out there intending to kill someone and capable of penetrating expensive security precautions.
We urgently hope that the FBI and other law enforcement entities will do better this time in catching the culprit or culprits than they did after the anthrax attack. Congress will have to look for ways to harden itself further, possibly accelerating the process of digitizing all incoming mail. That project has gone through one “pilot” program after another without implementation.
Ricin is now on the map as a U.S. terrorist threat, and presumably, there will be a push to develop an antidote that doesn’t now exist. Sadly, we have to adapt to life under threat. Fortunately, we’re doing it.