One-Alarm Fire

U.S. counterterrorism may be overly preoccupied with biological weapons—which have a rather poor track record

At a time when Americans are scrambling to buy gas masks and fill prescriptions for antibiotics, it is no wonder that Germs, a book about bio-terrorism, has become a best seller. Its three authors, all veteran New York Times reporters, have unquestionable pedigrees, given their expertise in the Middle East, U.S. national security, and science, respectively. Their book suggests that this country's alarm is well founded. The authors write,

The emergence of the United States as the world's most powerful nation has made biological attack more likely. Adversaries that resent America's global dominance, envy its wealth, or fear its overwhelming military power can fight back most effectively with unconventional weapons. The attack on the U.S.S. Cole, in which a modern warship was crippled and nearly sunk in October 2000 by a dinghy packed with explosives and detonated by suicide bombers, showed how the seemingly powerless can strike a devastating military blow. In the coming years, those willing to die for their cause may well choose instead to become smallpox carriers or Marburg [a deadly hemorrhagic virus] martyrs.

If the bombing of the Cole, in which a total of seventeen sailors died, can launch a logical leap to the mass use of indiscriminate killer viruses, one shudders to think what conclusions the authors might have reached had their book been written after September 11.

The excerpt above encapsulates the main shortcoming of Germs—its lack of context and perspective. This derives largely from the authors' initial goal, which was, as they candidly explain, an attempt to "explore for the New York Times" the reasons behind the Pentagon's decision in 1997 to vaccinate some 2.4 million soldiers and reservists against anthrax. But their inquiry expanded to include an examination of the Clinton Administration's effort to elevate bio-terrorism to the status of a major national-security priority. In what is meant to be a dramatic account of the efforts of a handful of leading scientists, policymakers, and senior officials to focus national attention on this menace, the authors' failure to place this particular threat within the context of other risks, perhaps equally pressing or even more likely, becomes at once conspicuous and lamentable. It also renders Germs more descriptive than analytical, and thus ensures that when, in a concluding chapter, the authors belatedly offer some real analysis, it comes across as too little too late.

"Is the threat of germ weapons real or exaggerated?" they ask in the first sentence of the conclusion. The answer is an unsatisfying "both." In fact, the succeeding five and a half pages raise precisely the questions that should have been asked throughout the preceding text. For example, the book begins with a portentous recounting of a 1984 episode in the small Oregon town of The Dalles. Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian mystic, tried to poison the local reservoir and contaminated the salad bars of area restaurants with salmonella bacteria, in hopes of debilitating the populace and thereby rigging a municipal election in the cult's favor. But this example is irrelevant to discussion of the frightful potential of biological weapons and the wanton homicidal intention of those who would likely wield them, because the Oregon attack was deliberately conceived to be nonlethal. And after 314 pages warning of the lethal potential of such weapons and the growing likelihood that they will be used, the authors conclude, simply, "Only a handful of groups have attempted biological attacks and fewer still have succeeded. Thus far, the Rajneeshees' germ assault ... has proven to be an anomaly."

Had the authors asked their concluding questions earlier, they might have been able to explore in more depth this paradox: as mesmerizingly attractive as these weapons have been to an assortment of contemporary terrorists, megalomaniacal dictators, and other miscreants, they have historically proved frustratingly ineffective. In a seminal 1999 article on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction for National Security Studies Quarterly, David Rapoport argued, "The limited value or effectiveness of chemical or biological weapons in wars of the past seems the most compelling reason they were not used much." In support of this argument Rapoport cited evidence that despite its extensive use during World War I, poison gas accounted for only five percent of the casualties. Even in more recent times, such as when Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran, fewer than one percent (5,000) of the 600,000 Iranians who perished were killed by gas. The wartime use of biological weapons has a similar record. On at least eleven occasions before and during World War II the Imperial Japanese Army employed germ agents as diverse as cholera, dysentery, bubonic plague, anthrax, and paratyphoid, disseminated in both water and air. Not only did these fail to kill as many Chinese soldiers as the Japanese had hoped, but on at least one occasion—the 1942 assault on Chekiang—10,000 Japanese soldiers were affected, of whom some 1,700 died. "The Japanese program's principal defect, a problem common to all efforts so far," Rapoport concluded, was "an ineffective delivery system."

Indeed, as the experience of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult responsible for a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, demonstrated, delivery was still a significant technological hurdle more than fifty years later. Moreover, Aum's frustrations with developing biological weapons were what had driven it to concentrate instead on producing chemical weapons such as nerve gas. On at least nine occasions Aum members had attempted to disseminate botulinum toxin or anthrax using aerosol means: each time they failed, either because the botulinum agents they grew and enriched were not toxic or because the mechanical sprayers they used to disseminate the anthrax spores became clogged and hence inoperative. As a result of these failures the cult's scientists concluded that chemical weapons posed significantly less formidable scientific and technological challenges than biological ones. Chemical attacks are, however, arguably easier than biological attacks to detect and to contain, because biological infection occurs without notice and is usually followed by an incubation period during which victims unknowingly spread the contagion.

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