Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 October 2005

Plague Bioterrorism: A Sui-Genocide Bomb


Since 9/11, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the possibility of terrorists deliberately seeding a bacterial or viral plague. No less a pundit than Charles Krauthammer---a columnist noted for steely-eyed realism---has fanned the flames of this fear. In a recent column, he chided the scientists who decoded the genome of the 1918 pandemic flu virus and “rebuilt” it. Their stunning scientific and technical achievement, he argued, was ultimately unwise because the scientists had published the viral genome, giving terrorists a blueprint for a plague weapon.

Krauthammer is not alone in his fear. Two years ago, the United States embarked on a crash program to stockpile vaccine against smallpox, a disease that science has all but eradicated. The reason was fear that terrorists would find and steal the small stores of smallpox virus still kept in research repositories and use it as a plague weapon.

How realistic are these fears? To answer that question, we must consider the consequences of using such a weapon for the terrorists themselves.

The chief characteristic of a plague is communicability. A viral or bacterial disease that is easily transmissible, usually by aerosols, would be a devastating weapon. The very global transportation system that supports our modern economy could spread it around the world in days or weeks. Even in 1918, before the advent of modern air travel, the “Spanish” flu pandemic swept the world in less than a year. Today the spread would be infinitely more rapid.

If a plague can infect the entire world in days or weeks, how would the terrorists protect themselves from it? How would Islamic terrorists, in particular, keep a plague they started from wiping out themselves and their fellow Muslims?

There are only four defenses against a plague: (1) natural immunity; (2) isolation; (3) vaccination; and (4) curative medicine. Religion is learned behavior, not a genetic characteristic. Being a Muslim provides no more or less natural immunity than being a Christian, Jew or atheist. Islamic terrorists might think that the relative industrial and commercial backwardness of their homes would protect them from contact with a worldwide plague, but that hope would be spectacularly false. Capitals and major cities of Muslim lands are as much a part of the modern world as other cites, linked by air, sea and ground transportation with the developed world. Any communicable plague starting in the developed world would quickly find its way to Muslim cities and from there to every Muslim on the planet. Eventually, it would even find its way to isolated desert oases and Osama bin Laden’s mountain redoubt.

To avoid contact with the plague, the terrorists would have to isolate themselves completely from outside contact. So would their leaders. Moreover , they would have to do so for extended periods, at a time when they use human messengers almost exclusively in order to thwart electronic eavesdropping. Such isolation is wildly unrealistic, the more so in wartime conditions and under constant threat of discovery, capture and annihilation. Terrorists depend on a social infrastructure of sympathizers to bring them food, supplies and weaponry and manage their safe houses. The sympathizers would bring the plague home to them.

As for vaccines and cures, who in is best position to invent, manufacture and distribute them? Where are all the most competent and expert centers for disease control, medical scientists, medical laboratories, doctors, and hospitals? Where are the most robust and flexible health-care delivery systems? In the Muslim world or in the developed world? Can folks trained in Madrassas, knowing only the Koran and hiding in safe houses or mountain redoubts, decode a viral genome, create a vaccine or cure, and manufacture and distribute it better than the West?

If Muslim terrorists deliberately started a plague, they would be subjecting their own people to far greater death, suffering and devastation than their “enemies.” A plague created by Islamic terrorists would therefore be a sui-genocide bomb---a highly effective strategy to wipe themselves and their people out, far more than people in developed nations.

If you believe, as some do, that the terrorists we face are “crazy,” then their use of a plague weapon may seem realistic. But there is little evidence that even the most vicious terrorists are that crazy or irrational. They have made their objectives crystal clear: (1) driving “infidels” from their holy lands and eventually from all lands populated primarily by Muslims; (2) “regime change” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Muslim dictatorships; (3) establishing an Islamic “Caliphate” throughout Muslim-occupied lands; and (4), as a corollary to (1) and (3), resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by driving Jews from the region or annihilating them.

While medieval in thrust and morally abhorrent, these goals are internally consistent and have their own terrible logic. Moreover, given the terrorists’ lack of technology, advanced weaponry, industrial infrastructure, and widespread political support, suicide bombing by individual fanatics also may be a logically supportable, if cruel and short-sighted, means of realizing them. But sui-genocide?

Leaders like bin Laden and Zarqawi do not blanch at sending tens and hundreds to their deaths as “martyrs.” But they go to extraordinary effort to spare themselves. They build mountain redoubts. Like Stalin and Saddam, they sleep in a different place almost every night, sometimes several times per night. No doubt they justify this effort by citing their extraordinary value to their “cause. “ Yet by starting a plague on its unpredictable course they would be playing a medical form of Russian roulette. That hardly seems in character.

It is no coincidence that the single instance of suspected Islamic bioterrorism involved anthrax. Anthrax infections are not communicable; they require direct exposure to aerosolized or “weaponized” spores. Unlike a bacterial or viral plague, anthrax is a “short range” weapon. With even rudimentary care and planning, it can be configured so as not to recoil on its creators. A communicable plague is something else entirely.

Of course it makes sense to be prepared. Having some smallpox vaccine on hand is not a bad thing. It might protect us from an accidental release of stored virus or a natural re-emergence of that particular plague from some hidden biological reservoir. Similarly, making a vaccine or curative antidote to the newly resurrected 1918 flu is not a bad research project. Among other things, it might teach us something about the next flu pandemic.

But plagues are not realistic terror weapons. They are too unpredictable, and they can terrorize their creators more than the victims, especially if their creators are Islamic extremists with no biotech training or infrastructure.

Furthermore, plagues do not fit the character profile of Islamic terrorists. Although experimenting at times with more subtle weapons, these terrorists have returned to explosions again and again. They are extremists in every sense of the word. They see the world as black and white---believer and infidel---and they like things that go “bang.”

Explosions fit their world view perfectly. Unlike chem and bio weapons, explosions are not subtle. They provide instantaneous results. They promise instant martyrdom to perpetrators. They are highly visible. They attract good television coverage, which in turn recruits more “martyrs” to the cause. And terrorists can delude themselves that most of their victims do not suffer, but are instantly dispatched. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, explosions kill with a bang, not a whimper. Terrorists like that.

The granddaddy of all bangs is a nuclear explosion. It is therefore the terrorists’ holy grail. Like other bombs, nuclear ones are short-range weapons. With careful planning and a kitchen timer, even the bomb planter can escape. Radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion in the United States or Europe is unlikely to reach Muslim lands. The terrorists are smart enough to know this.

Of course we should continue to make every effort to ward off the next naturally evolving flu pandemic. But plague bioterrorism, while a good subject for science fiction, is a very low probability threat. We should keep our eye on the ball of the chief threat: nuclear terrorism.



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