In 2001, the United States was gripped by widespread fear due to a bioterrorist who began mailing potentially deadly spores. Now, think back to when everyone felt like they were in danger all the time.
The anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001 are one of those feverish blips in the western world’s collective psyche. This story dominated the news for a few intense weeks. Still, it eventually faded as it was overshadowed by the more considerable kerfuffle that occurred in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
It is understandable if, upon learning that Netflix had released a feature-length documentary titled The Anthrax Attacks: In the Shadow of 9/11, you responded with something like, “Oh yes. The situation with anthrax. What exactly was the point of all that?
To review, a man named Bob Stevens passed away due to inhalation of potentially fatal anthrax spores less than a month after the World Trade Center towers were brought down. It had been a quarter of a century since there had been a fatality of this kind on US soil, but nobody gave it much thought until eight days later when NBC News in New York received a letter contaminated with anthrax. This was the first fatality of its kind in the United States.
The paper September 11 was written on it and contained crude threats reported in the spindly capitals of an unstable kidnapper or serial killer. The text said, “TAKE PENACILIN NOW. DEATH TO AMERICA. “MORTALITY TO ISRAEL!” The New York Post and two senators in the United States received identical letters; as a result, five individuals lost their lives, including two employees at a postal sorting operation in Washington, DC.
The United States of America was in a state of terror because September 11tember 11th had been unimaginably horrible, even though it had taken place in a relatively remote location. It appeared as though anyone, no matter where they were, may be in danger now that the bio-terrorist equivalent of the Zodiac killer was out on the loose. Either al-Qaida or a copycat is capitalizing on the nation’s vulnerability for their unknown objectives.
The fact that this documentary, which features archival footage, dramatic reconstructions, interviews with relevant FBI agents, and interviews with other individuals affected by the case, pays so little attention to how helpful the anthrax attacks were to a government that was already planning to use 9/11 and the fear of Islamic extremism to bolster support for attacking Iraq is a curious omission given the nature of the documentary’s presentation. However, this is a trivial point of contention. The Anthrax Attacks elicits many outrage-worthy injustices and tantalizing riddles since it centers on the investigation rather than the events it investigates.
FBI agents recall how they were put on the defensive when confronted with one of the most challenging cases of their careers. They needed guidance from scientific experts, but they quickly realized that access to the type of anthrax the killer was using was limited to those same scientific experts.
This put them in a difficult position. Dr. Steven Hatfill became a household name almost overnight after being identified as a person of interest in the lethal letter case in June 2002. This came after months of fruitless investigations and a long time after the letters threatening death had stopped being sent.
The documentary describes a pattern of events familiar from countless high-profile criminal investigations. This pattern is one in which law enforcement and the media – sharing an interest in finding a perpetrator to vilify – leap on someone who fits the profile but against whom there is no substantial evidence.
During the extended period of rigorous scrutiny that Hatfill was subjected to, the general public was given numerous opportunities to be persuaded that he was guilty. After many years, he was awarded $5.8 million in compensation.
The movie shows great care for the people who suffer when they are just a tiny part of an important story to the government. Colleagues and family members of the two postal workers who died say their workplace stayed open for ten days after anthrax contamination was thought to have happened. This was true even after investigators in full hazmat suits worked among the staff. The more prestigious offices of media companies and high-ranking politicians were shut down within hours. Still, their workers were better connected, better paid, and, even though it wasn’t said, white.
Back to the investigation, the movie finds a sneaky way to show how cold the trail got for the FBI after the Hatfill mess: where there used to be captioned on screen with specific dates, now we tick from 2003 to 2004 and 2005 without any new information. Then the story turns, and there’s an unknown main suspect. If you’ve read enough whodunits, it’s easy to figure out who it was, even if you’ve forgotten.
In another story, the police are sure they have their man, but this time, the circumstantial evidence and the person’s profile point more strongly to guilt. A bold change to dramatized scenes, with Clark Gregg as the moody, troubled accused and doing a great job, shows the character of a man who, depending on who is looking, is either the killer or someone who could be used as a fall guy.
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