Approximately one decade ago, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, our country was once again shaken by a threat to its security. This time the weapon of choice wasn’t a plane, but rather something that’s considered an innocuous and harmless part of everyday life: letters delivered via the mail.
Anthrax, which came in the form of a white powder, concealed in envelopes and delivered in the mail, created a panic when it was delivered to government offices and media outlets. These attacks led the federal government to put stringent mail screening procedures in place to ensure that any dangerous materials are spotted before they arrive at their intended target. In addition, the government also began irradiating, heating and otherwise sterilizing mail intended for federal recipients.
A decade has passed since these incidents took place. In that time, the economy has taken a turn for the worst. Federal budgets are now strained and the nation is struggling to escape significant debt. With screening and sterilizing of mail costing the already cash-strapped government over one hundred million dollars annually, many are beginning to question whether the threat is past, and if those dollars are being spent wisely.
In fact, the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe recently published an article asking the question, “how safe is your mail?” In the article, O’Keefe highlights the decreasing number of reported suspicious packages, the steps and costs of screening mail and the actual threat that suspicious packages pose when they are sent. Although it’s not directly stated, it’s implied that the threat is mostly passed, and that although the mail has been used for illicit and dangerous purposes before, the sheer number of incidents doesn’t warrant the investment the government is making today.
Although I do agree that the mail is safer today, I think it’s because of these screening and detection processes and not simply a matter of less dangerous materials being sent through the mail. Although the threat of foreign terrorists sending dangerous materials to media outlets, government offices and other organizations via the mail is far lower than immediately following the 9/11 attacks, dangerous materials sent via the mail have become the weapon for other groups and individuals looking to send a message.
In fact, just two years ago, Pitney Bowes authored a white paper about the threat of suspicious packages sent via the mail. The white paper’s authors noted a shift in the source of suspicious mail away from terrorists seeking to injure people and toward individuals within the United States looking to voice displeasure with particular government policies or corporate activities.
The paper was created following the economic downturn in 2008 when public outcry over government bailouts and perceived greed in the financial services was at a crescendo. As a result of this outcry, financial institutions, companies that had to layoff employees and other organizations impacted by the economic downturn began to see an increase in suspicious packages and threatening letters. Despite whether these suspicious packages truly included any dangerous materials or not, they still disrupt operations, frighten employees and otherwise negatively impact the organization that receives them.
With this apparent shift in the source of suspicious packages, the Postal Service, government agencies and other organizations should be just as alert and conscious of suspicious packages as they were during the anthrax scare. Just take a look at a newspaper or Google News and you’ll see why.
There are an increasing number of Americans upset about the current state of the federal government, the economy and the job market, as illustrated by movements such as Occupy Wall Street. With the shift in suspicious package activity towards individuals looking to make statements about policies and against organizations they disagree with, today’s social climate could potentially predicate an increase in this activity.
The mail is safer today. But that’s because of the efforts of the Postal Service and the steps being taken to identify and eliminate threats in the mail, such as those we listed above and discussed in a previous post. The threat of suspicious packages and dangerous materials sent via the mail still exists. However, the source of these materials has simply changed. By remaining vigilant and being prepared, the Postal Service and federal government can ensure that our mail stream remains safe.