A friend of mine (thanks, Ryan!) sent me this link in which Condoleeza Rice recalls an incident weeks after September 11, 2001 during which she was accompanying then-President George W. Bush to an APEC summit in China as his then-National Security Advisor. While in Shanghai, then-Vice President Richard Cheney informed Bush and his advisors that “the White House detectors have detected botulinum toxin, and … those … exposed were going to die.”
Samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be tested on laboratory mice, but results would take 24 hours. Rice’s deputy, Steven Hadley, reportedly told Rice, “Let me put it this way. If the mice are feet up, we’re toast. If the mice are feet down, we’re fine.” After what I’m sure was a terribly nerve-wracking 24 hours, Hadley reported to Rice, “The mice are feet down.” When Rice repeated this message to the President, he was relieved, and Rice now jokes that the Chinese probably thought she was speaking in code.
Botulinum toxin is, according to the Center for Biosecurity, the “most poisonous substance known” and “extremely potent and lethal.” I’m sure we will probably never know the source of the botulism found inside the White House. I don’t think it was caused by a stray can of food, but some sort of small, random thing like that seems likely–something similar to a false positive from the scanners rather than an attack. But what if, shortly after 9/11, the President, his Chief of Staff, his Secretary of State, his National Security Advisor, and others had been poisoned, and they died in China? It’s a scary, terrible, horrible idea. But it’s also very interesting for a writer. This happened for real, and yet any writer who tried to write a book that included a 9/11-style attack followed by Presidential poisoning would probably be laughed out of every publishing house.
Let me just be clear: I am in no way advocating for such actions against the leadership of the U.S. This post is strictly limited to creating a work of fiction, and should not be read as advocating, advising, or hinting at any calls to action. Got that Secret Service? Okay, moving on.
This would have been a decapitating move, following closely on the heels of a terrible terrorist attack. While I have great faith in the resiliency of our nation, this would test us. I do not know if we would be capable of rallying, or at least not after some sort of panicked implosion. How bad would things get? Riots? Crime? Destruction? Looting? Martial Law? A second civil war?
At this time, the U.S. was already operating in Afghanistan. Would there be pressure to attack China simply because the President and his staff died there? What if we were engaged in wars in Afghanistan and China instead of Afghanistan and Iraq? How would our allies react to calls for war with China? Land battles in Afghanistan and naval battles in the Pacific? Would there be a nuclear exchange? Would the U.S. even try to invade China? What if it led to two broad stalemates? What if China renewed the war when the U.S. economy collapsed in 2007?
What about Cheney? What would his Presidency have looked like? We now know he was a big fan of the 1% doctrine (if there was a 1% chance of something bad happening, treat it as if there was a 100% chance), so how would that have come into play? How would his interest in the National Security State have combined with Martial Law? Would the U.S. now be “occupied” by military contractors? Drones flying overhead? Checkpoints, roadblocks, documentation? Our economy would have likely tanked in 2001 instead of 2007. Would contractors rebel when not paid?
I’m sure Cheney was simply trying to be direct due to the pressing time constraints when he informed the President of his potential death, but Cheney’s delivery (as reported secondhand via Rice) seems a little odd. Not that I think he had anything to do with it, but what if Cheney was behind the attack? What if the U.S. experienced a coup d’etat? What if this was revealed shortly after Cheney took power? What if the National Security State was already in place? With the military deployed abroad, would citizens rise up? Could they? What if it never came to light, or what if it came to light 25 years later?
I’ll be honest: I’m still processing this incident and it’s possible consequences, so I’m sure I’ve left out some great ideas, but this is a rich vein of “What if.” What do you think of it? How could things play out?