"Bioterrorism Puts the Nation on Edge."
So read the Page 1 headline in the October 10 Washington Times. But for a single word, it was correct. Its fear of bioterrorism that has us doing the headless-chicken routine.
Item: A CNN anchor breathlessly reports theres been a case of typhoid fever diagnosed in Washington state, adding that its not necessarily terrorist-related. Yet 400 such cases occur every year in this country.
Item: The media are in a fever pitch over a single anthrax death in Florida. The other anthrax incident in Florida and now the one in New York are are assuredly foul play. At worst, chalk up one death to bioterrorism, about 6,000 to passenger planes.
Item: People are paying thousands of dollars for gas masks they dont even know how to use.
This may cost you a fortune and do you no good...
Theres no good time for hysteria, but a period of national crisis is the worst time.
Hysteria plays right into the terrorists hands, multiplying whatever real damage theyve done.
This panic in the streets must stop. Now.
The most important thing we should know about bioterrorism is that it has already been repeatedly tried and has repeatedly failed. All recorded biochemical terrorist attacks to date have killed fewer people than one suicide bomber in a Jerusalem pizzeria.
Among the myriad hurdles facing would-be bioterrorists are: obtaining the agent in the first place; growing it to useable amounts; transporting it safely to the desired location of attack; releasing it in such a way as to cause harm.
Consider three of the most worried-about such vectors: the smallpox virus; anthrax bacteria; and chemical agents.
...while this flu shot costs about $15 and may save your life.
In the 19th century, smallpox had a 30% death rate. But that was before we had a battery of anti-virals developed just in the last decade, along with an arsenal of antibiotics to treat secondary infections that often cause more deaths than a virus itself does.
Further, the government has an estimated 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand. Thats hardly enough to innoculate the whole country but can be effective in containing outbreaks.
Unlike smallpox, the anthrax bacteria is readily available. Every year it kills American livestock. But its not contagious. You have to inhale it directly. Even then, if its not painstakingly converted into a powder, its virtually worthless.
Moreover, it takes a huge amount to make a person ill. Thats why the anthrax-laden letters sent to Florida and New York have killed just one person.
Sarin and other nerve toxins, along with chemical agents like mustard gas, are also available to terrorists. Saddam Hussein probably has tons. But so did Hitler.
Did Hitler refrain from using sarin for humanitarian reasons? Hardly. His generals informed him old-fashioned high explosives were far more efficient.
Japans Aum Shinrikyo cult spent millions of dollars to develop and disseminate both chemical and biological weapons. Finally in 1995, the cult succeeded in killing 12 people by releasing sarin on a packed Tokyo subway train. But a $10 briefcase filled with plastic explosives and nails could have killed many, many more.
None of which is to say that biochemical weapons pose no threat.
Its precisely because the thought of being killed by something invisible scares us so much more than that of being ripped to shreds that drives terrorists to desperate efforts to use biochemical weapons.
But we have nothing to gain and everything to lose if we let primal fears replace common sense. The real terrorist threats come not from the exotic, but from the mundane — everyday things such as bombs in trucks, letters, suitcases, and backpacks. Or fuel-laden commercial planes.
The best defense against bioterrorism is the same as against all terrorist attacks. Root out the terrorists and kill them. Nothing short of this — including that gas mask you bought that has no filter — will ever ensure our safety.
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on anthrax.