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.