The Boston Globe published my fourth guest column this week. My editor there suggested I talk about the anthrax affair. At first I thought I couldn’t write about something so complicated in only 700 words, but once I began, I found I could say something. I think we novelists get so accustomed to a giant canvas, that we forget we can write small as well. It’s been so good for me to live for a time with a weekly deadline and a strict word limit.
Here is the essay, which I titled: “Our Dark Materials”
we forget. In the aftermath of 9-11,
after the memorials, the attacks on
the anthrax scare slipped from public consciousness. Now, long articles detail the results of a
troubled investigation into the anonymous anthrax tainted letters of September
2001. With the cruel elegance of a Greek
tragedy, Bruce Ivins, the scientific advisor on the matter became the prime
suspect in the case, and its sixth murder victim as well, when he killed
himself on July 29. Suddenly anthrax is
back in the news, and we remember those chilling block printed messages: DEATH
TO AMERICA. We recall the postal
screenings, the warnings about unknown addresses, and the lock down of mail
rooms and government offices.
time, the anthrax letters seemed part of the larger offensive launched by Al
Queda. Now we understand them
differently, as the project of a deranged scientist in a federal laboratory. We wonder how this disturbed man could
continue working to refine such dangerous substances. We marvel that an investigator researching a
vaccine for anthrax could also be the man who used the pathogen to such evil
ends. Conspiracy theorists will have a
field day. Was Ivins looking for more
funding for his vaccine research? Was
the government trying to frame him, to cover up for larger, deeper plots? Surely the FBI investigation was as poisonous
as the powdery substance in those envelopes.
Secrecy for years, and a 5.8 million dollar pay off for Ivin’s embattled
colleague, Steven Hatfill. This material
is perfect for gadfly film maker Oliver Stone, or even better, for the moody
blue novelist John Le Carre. The story
has it all: a mad scientist in thrall with his deadly subject, investigators
caught up in their inquiry–each player tainted by his own work. In Shakespeare’s famous words, each “nature .
. . subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”
these elements, the story plays into the public fear of scientists and their
techniques. How important our
truth-seekers have become, and how easily they can turn their tools to violent
ends. These are the recurring nightmares
illustrated in classic Science Fiction, Fantasy, and comic books: our own
machines mutiny, our genetically engineered organisms attack us, and most
frightening, our scientists mutate into forces for evil. For now, it seems, a rogue investigator
proves more dangerous than rogue nations.
Even as we benefit from advances in communication and medicine and engineering,
we distrust innovators. We predict
they’ll fly too high, and look for confirmation that their intelligence
corrupts them. The fear runs deep, old
as Icarus and Frankenstein and
witches’ poisoned apples.
Why do we distrust
scientists? Because, although we’d
rather shake our heads at politicians, and ogle celebrities and the super rich,
we know in our hearts that knowledge is power.
Scientists work with substances that can cure or kill. Their research will change, and even save our
lives, and so we look at them with awe, and superstition. We don’t fully understand the laboratory, and
so we mythologize investigators as heroes or demons–often both at once. We’re dazzled by scientists’ success and
saddened, yet also strangely satisfied when they fall.
And yet we
crave the fruits of scientific labor. We
desire cheaper food, and faster computers, better health, and alternative fuel,
but we’re shocked that research takes so long and costs so much. We want innovation without damage to the ecosystem,
drugs without side effects, manufacturing without toxic waste. We want all the benefits of the future
without giving up the comforts of the past.
Improvement without cost, change without hard choices. Is this too much to ask? Well, yes, but we keep asking anyway. Ultimately, we project our conflicting
expectations onto the men and women in the field, and we look to them with love
and hate, demanding oracles, requiring greatness, and burdening them with
praise and blame. Only the technology is
new. The role scientists play is old and
tribal: they are our shamans, and we expect miracles, even as we dread black