The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

November 8, 2012

1984 attack offers food for thought

ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was first published Oct. 28, 2001, in the midst of a nationwide scare over anthrax-tainted mail.

Do you ever get so sick of the news these days you just want to scream?

Do you ever think that if you hear the word anthrax one more time you will lose your mind?

Would you just like to get into bed, pull the covers over your head and stay there until this whole mess blows over?

You can’t, of course, but it’s a lovely idea nonetheless, the possibility of bed sores notwithstanding. We have to live our lives, despite the daily flood of dispatches about bombs raining on Afghanistan, mail suspected of containing a deadly virus and the possibility the terrorists may attack us again any day.

At the end of the day, we can return to our home, gather our family around us and give thanks for the food we are about to enjoy. In food, at least, we can find solace.

But even our food may be at risk.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of the United States Congress, says the nation’s food supply is vulnerable to terrorist attack.

That’s all we need to hear. It’s bad enough that we have to be suspicious of our mail, but now we have to look twice before we put something in our mouths, as well.

Cooked food won’t be a problem, of course, as the high temperatures used in the preparation process should be sufficient to kill most, if not all, pathogens. However, produce, which often is eaten raw, would be a prime target of opportunity for those who hope to keep America on edge.

There is, thus far, only one recorded terrorist attack in the United States using food as a weapon.

The year was 1984. The small town of The Dalles, Ore., a town of some 12,000 people about 80 miles from Portland, was the home to followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The Bhagwan’s followers numbered some 7,000, and set up their own small city on a 100-square-mile ranch south of The Dalles. The cult members even had their own police force.

The Bhagwan had 7,000 in his flock, but he wanted to extend his influence. His followers ran for, and won, the majority of the seats on the city council of the nearby town of Antelope.

Flush with his group’s political success, the Bhagwan set his sights on a pair of county judges’ positions. He planned to flood the polls with his followers, but he feared that wouldn’t be enough to assure victory. So he concocted a plot to keep a number of voters in The Dalles from going to the polls.

In the days prior to the election, residents of The Dalles became ill. They were throwing up, they had diarrhea, they felt like they had the intestinal flu.

The outbreak started with just a few people, then rapidly spread.

The number of people with similar symptoms in The Dalles grew exponentially in the ensuing days, until it finally topped out at somewhere around 750.

Investigators quickly discovered that the people who were so sick had one thing in common: they had all eaten out in the days prior to becoming ill. It was initially thought the outbreak was the result of an accident, an employee who was ill or a restaurant that wasn’t following health department codes, but that theory was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of those who became ill.

Law enforcement officials decided the outbreak was the result of a deliberate act. The Bhagwan and his followers quickly became the prime suspects.

On election day, residents of The Dalles, some still suffering the effects of the mysterious illness, flocked to the polls to vote against the cult’s candidates, resulting in their resounding defeat.

The mysterious illness turned out to be salmonella, which was spread in the salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles.

Spiking the salad bars, it turned out, was simply a test. The next step was to poison the town’s water supply.

Two leading cult members pleaded no contest to the poisoning.

They served four years in prison, then fled to Europe upon their release. The Bhagwan was never convicted of the poisoning, but was deported for immigration fraud.

There is a bronze statue of an antelope in The Dalles. It was a give from the people of the town of Antelope. The plaque affixed to the statue read, “In order for evil to prevail, good men should do nothing.”

“That’s kind of our ongoing message — that you can’t just stand by,” Susan Hun-tington, director of The Dalles Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press. “We certainly survived it, and I think the nation also needs to hear that. It’s a great American message.”

So what do we do, stop eating? I, for one, could stand to lose a few pounds, but my stomach would never forgive me.

Should we stop eating out? That not only would be horrible for our local economy, but my wife would never forgive me.

All we can do is prove to those who would do us harm that America, like its army, may travel on its stomach, but it will never grovel on it in fear.

Bon appetit.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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