By Heather Warren-Crow
Let’s begin numerically.
Right after 9.11.01, envelopes containing Bacillus anthracis were mailed to 2 US senators, a news anchor, the editor of the New York Post, and the headquarters of the publisher of Playboy and The National Enquirer. At least 22 people contracted anthrax. 5 died. According to the Department of Justice, these attacks are believed to have been perpetrated by Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (he wasn’t convicted, as he committed suicide before his indictment for the “Use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction, in violation of Title 18…Section 2322a”). In the decade after this event, officially branded “Amerithrax,” the US Government spent 60 billion dollars on biodefense, including the stockpiling of more than 28.75 million doses of the anthrax vaccine.
An envelope from Heather Warren-Crow’s performance piece sent to C21
I encountered this information as part of my research for the exhibition The Tool at Hand Milwaukee Challenge. Local artists were asked to make an artwork using only one tool. My contribution was a performance in which I used my tongue as a tool to lick envelopes printed with the following statement, accompanied by an arrow pointing upwards toward the stamp: “This is worth 1/133,333,333,333 of the total amount of money the United States has spent to counter bioterrorism since the 2001 anthrax attacks via the US Postal Service.” After inviting visitors to write notes to people of their choosing, I sealed the envelopes and handed them back for participants to put in a mailbox or give to a carrier.
One of my intentions was to use the postal service as an alternate mode of circulating information at a time in which the Internet and television are Americans’ main sources of news. I wanted to draw attention not only to the facts of federal spending, but also to the materiality of communication—always operative but easy to ignore when it comes to networked media. Although a full explanation of the goals of my performance lies outside the scope of this post, I will say that the process drew attention to the discomfort many of us feel around mail, especially those who pay bills online or over the phone. One participant picked up a just-licked envelope by its corner, as if I had given him a used Kleenex for a birthday present.
Info Object #1: more from Heather Warren-Crow’s performance piece
Motivated by the uncanny materiality of things, this post is an opportunity for me to think about Amerithrax as an event with applicability to the Nonhuman Turn. What follows is more storytelling than analysis. Focusing on the “Amerithrax Investigative Summary” (AIS), I will re-orient this official explanation towards its nonhuman but nonetheless vital actants. I don’t mean to minimize the human tragedy of the event or discredit the necessity of locating perpetrators. On the contrary, recognition of the imbrication of human and nonhuman life can provide a broader context for understanding criminal investigation, which is increasingly dependent on forensic science, as well as bioterrorism, which maximizes affective violence by hijacking preexisting assumptions regarding the supposed ontological and epistemological purity of the human. The Amerithrax letters exacerbated post-9/11 Islamophobic panic concerning the boundaries between Self and Other with a message praising Allah and directing the reader to take penicillin. Based on the exact phrasing and the highlighting of As and Ts (believed to stand for nucleic acids Adenine and Thymine), investigators quickly determined that the letters were the work of not a “true jihadi,” but a “home-grown attacker” (“home,” “growth”—two ideas I’ll return to later).