04.17.13

Ricin Scare at the White House: An Eerie Post-9/11 Echo

A senator is sent an envelope of poison after a terrorist attack. It sounds like the anthrax letters after 9/11—but Tuesday’s foiled attempt was ricin, a day after the Boston Marathon bombings. John Avlon on the scary parallel.

The day after the first terrorist attack against civilians on U.S. soil since 9/11, an envelope addressed to a U.S. senator is found packed with poison.

Suddenly, some of the chill from the fall of 2001 feels like it’s back—the uncertainty that comes from a one-two punch, albeit on a far smaller scale.

Remember that in the wake of 9/11, anthrax was mailed to U.S. senators as well as to several media outlets. The unclaimed attack killed five people and infected 17, adding to the anxiety of the time. In 2004, an envelope laced with the deadly poison ricin was caught before it reached the offices of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Now multiple senators, and possibly President Obama, appear to have been targeted with a ricin-laced envelope. The potent but non-contagious biological toxin, distilled from castor beans, has been implicated in Cold War-era assassinations and tested for chemical warfare purposes in the past. This envelope—mailed from Memphis, Tenn.—thankfully was intercepted in an off-site mail-sorting facility in Maryland, established after the anthrax attacks.

There is no reason to believe the Boston bombings and the ricin reports are connected, just as the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax attacks were found to be unrelated. But the parallels are a bit eerie and unwelcome.

The coincidence should not distract from our larger obligation to “be not afraid.”

Wicker, a conservative Mississippi senator first tapped by Gov. Haley Barbour after the resignation of Trent Lott, is now serving his second term. In the wake of this threat, he is receiving security protection as a precaution.

The terrorist attack in Boston is still being investigated, with no clear suspects or motives to date. While the threat of radical Islamist terrorism logically springs to many people’s minds—after more than 45 foiled terror plots since 9/11—there is an equal possibility that the attack was the work of a lone wolf or militia-type group, as was the case in the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

130416-ricin-letter-avlon-embed2
A woman holds castor seeds at Sheffield's Seed Co. in Locke, N.Y. (Kevin Rivoli/AP, file)

It is worth mentioning that ricin plots have been associated with domestic militia groups in the recent past. In November 2011, federal officials arrested four middle-age Georgia men, including a lab technician at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, and accused them of a wide range of half-baked plots, including carrying out “mass murders in four U.S. cities by dispersing deadly ricin dust from the windows of speeding cars,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Likewise, the secretary of an Alaskan militia organization was arrested at the Canadian border in 2011 with information about pipe bombs and the creation of ricin toxin in her car.

But at this point the association should be regarded as informational rather than indicative of its source. In 2002, an Islamist plot to poison the London underground with ricin was foiled as well. The “appeal” of the toxin seems to stem from its comparatively easy availability.

Resilience remains the order of the day. The concerning coincidence of the Boston Marathon terror attack and the ricin-laced envelope should not distract from our larger obligation to “be not afraid.” We’ve had difficult days in the past and we will have them in the future. The world is a dangerous place and it will never be without risk. Our government’s job is to minimize the risk to citizens while maintaining the maximum amount of freedom. And so the investigations go on—to connect the dots while searching for the culprit, and then bring them to justice.