More on defense from The Atlantic monthly.

The War on Terrorism
A collection of features from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Triumph of Terrorism" (September 11, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles gives insight into the terrorist mind—and how the U.S. may have both inflamed and encouraged terrorist groups.

Flashbacks: "Coming to Grips with Jihad" (September 12, 2001)
Several Atlantic articles suggest that Osama bin Laden represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Dispatches: "Ground Zero, the Day After" (September 19, 2001
A pilgrimage to the "ash-covered canyon" that was once the World Trade Center.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.

Infectious Terrorism

October 19, 2001
n May, 1991, an article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly warning of the dangers of biological terrorism. The article, "Infectious Terrorism" by Robert S. Root-Bernstein, may have seemed alarmist with its suggestion that "it may be only a matter of time before terrorists turn to biological agents in their attempts to menace innocent people." But a decade later, with anthrax turning up in Florida, New York, D.C., and New Jersey, Root-Bernstein's admonition seems to have in fact been prescient.

The article reviewed a number of fronts upon which biological attacks might be waged—including contamination of water supplies, crops, packaged foods, ventilation systems, and transportation networks—and urged that "public-health officials, epidemiologists, law-enforcement officers, physicians and pharmacists, microbiologists, health-care workers, agriculturalists, package designers, industrial engineers, and those who oversee food preparation and distribution" familiarize themselves with the potential dangers and take "precautionary measures."
For example, there is only one manufacturer of anthrax vaccine in the United States; that manufacturer was unable fully to meet the needs of the Army during the Gulf War. What if the population at large had been threatened? Stocks of vaccines and antitoxins must be widely available.
Root-Bernstein emphasized that modern medicine had already given us the tools with which to combat bioterrorism. It would simply be a matter of careful advance planning, he argued, to render "the apparently awful prospect of the spread of anthrax, botulism, grayanotoxins, or another scourge of previous ages far less of a threat than people may suppose."

Nearly tweny years earlier, the Atlantic contributor John F. Henahan addressed a different kind of threat that is also now making many Americans nervous. In "The Nerve-Gas Controversy" (September 1974), Henahan outlined the debate surrounding the Army's request that year for governmental permission to update its chemical-weapons system. The existing chemical-weapons stockpile, according to the Army, was out of date and starting to deteriorate, posing a danger of toxic leakage. The Army wanted to destroy the stockpile and implement in its place a new "binary" chemical-weapons system, whereby two relatively harmless chemical agents are stored separately but, upon being mixed together (within the body of a detonated missile, for example), form a new deadly compound. The fact that the chemicals would not become harmful until already launched, the Army argued, would render the weapons much safer for those deploying them, and an upgraded chemical-weapons system would provide a new level of deterrence against the escalation of a conflict into a nuclear war.

During congressional hearings on the proposal (which was eventually approved in 1981), some expressed reservations about the plan, arguing that not only might it signal to the Soviet Union that the United States was not serious about the disarmament negotiations then underway, but, perhaps more frighteningly, that it could lead to chemical-weapons information getting into the wrong hands. Henahan quoted from the testimony of Dr. Charles Price, a representative of the American Chemical Society:
"A greater concern of the American Chemical Society is that the more such know-how is developed, especially in an open society like that of the United States, the more readily the technology can be disseminated to less developed nations. Furthermore, the simplicity and accessibility of the components of the binary agents make this weapon potentially available to terrorists."
Because chemical weapons "can cover thousands of acres with some of the most lethal concoctions ever devised by man" and can "become weapons of indiscriminate destruction," Price emphasized, "every step toward their nonuse and eventual elimination should be encouraged."

—Sage Stossel

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Sage Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.