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Undoing the biological weapon hyperbole

Again and again the apocalyptic scenarios seize our thoughts. An anthrax, botulinum, or smallpox virus is secretly released; invisible, scentless, and indiscriminate, the virus suffuses the nation and makes us its mortal hosts. A bubonic-like plague wrestles us from our lives and sense of security.

Such is the prophecy routinely invoked by various congressmen, pundits, officials, and scientists, and detailed by various media which telecast and display it across the country.

One Washington Post
columnist claimed, “The next attack, catastrophic beyond our imagination, is waiting to happen.” And, if we don’t act decisively, “we will be living the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis — our last encounter with the real possibility of genocidal attack on America — for the rest of our lives.”

And, if that is not bad enough, another Post
article cited a Sept 1999 report from the US Commission of National Security for the 21st Century promising that “States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

Furthermore, according to articles in the Post and the New York Times
, the Bush II administration has repeatedly warned of the possibility of chemical or biological attacks on US soil, and statements issued by Attorney General Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others on the immediate threat of terrorism to the US compounds the alarm.

Proclamations such as these are irresponsible at best and reckless at worst. To begin, many of them are gross distortions of reality.

In an OP-ED piece also in the Post
, Amy Smithson, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Project at the Henry L. Stimson Center, discusses the daunting obstacles to biological warfare. According to Smithson, “The public and far too many policymakers do not understand the substantial technical hurdles associated with making and dispersing chemical and biological agents so that massive casualties result.” Smithson conjures the example of crop-dusters to illustrate her point. Even if terrorists were able to cultivate a pathogen, contain it properly, and obtain a crop-dusting plane, the delivery would be prohibitively difficult. Not only is the spray of crop-dusters not fine enough to distribute the pathogen, but wind currents could also carry it away, decreasing the possibility of infection.

While the idea of a biological attack is unimaginably horrific, the possibility of it is diminished by the difficulties of orchestrating such an assault.

As a number of commentators have observed, the Aum Shinrikyo cult exemplified the complications of conducting biological terror. Aum Shinrikyo had tens of thousands of members, multi-million dollar funding, a large biological manufacturing facility, over 100 dedicated scientists, and enough of a technological basis to create over 60 pounds of a lethal agent. Applying the interpretation of many current analysts, the would-be terrorists of Aum Shinrikyo might have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths when they released their manufactured sarin on a Tokyo subway in 1995. But due to the complexity of releasing the agent, the sarin succeeded in killing a dozen, injuring over 50, and triggering near 1,000 panic-related injuries.

Considering the cult’s ability to plan attacks and manufacture anthrax, botulinum and sarin domestically, the Aum Shinrikyo scheme proved a decisive failure. The cult also attempted to release anthrax and botulinum multiple times, and were unsuccessful each time.

Remarking on the prospect of bio-war, Smithson plainly writes, “Americans should know that they are much likelier to be struck by lightning than to fall victim to a chemical or bio-terrorist attack.” A host of biological and chemical experts have come to similar conclusions about the possibility of attack. And yet, the same group unanimously agrees that the idea of attack is horrifying.

The misrepresentation in this comes from a media tendency to dramatize the “what ifs?” and cover the most radical prognostications of disaster. This is attended by a general overreaction among pundits, commentators, doomsayers, and officials who concentrate on the idea and scenarios of an attack rather than the actual possibilities.

And keep in mind that no political commentary is objective. Rather, observations and statements are always underlain by political agendas of various natures. Such agendas cause individuals and organizations to emphasize certain data, cloak perspectives and subjectivity in seemingly unbiased language, and resort to unfounded predictions.

But at the same time, we could expect as much. This overreaction comes, in part, due to the fact that our sense of security has been severely shaken and our self-image is being rebuilt.

This is also where the failure of the Bush administration is found. Among the most central reasons for the existence of a state is to insulate the citizenry from fear and ensure, to the degree possible, its security. The Bush administration has been doing just the opposite. Of course, we cannot expect anyone to guarantee our full security. We are all aware of that now. It is the administration’s Hobbesian duty, however, to guarantee that the chance of danger is small and that everything possible is being done to assure our well-being.

The statements by administration officials Ashcroft and Rumsfeld are in stark contrast to the mandates of any president, whether Democrat, Republican, or Conservative. The administration should be reassuring us that the world is not coming to an end and that all is under control. They should be trying to convince us of what I have argued in this column. They should not, as they have been, lend believability to the wildest prophesies of disaster and pestilence.