Notes From the Margins…

Death March of the Terror Germs

  • February 10, 2012
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Governments that have nothing much else to offer their populations except ‘security’ are always keen to remind us what a dangerous and insecure place the world really is, and what deep trouble we would all be in if they weren’t out there taking out rogue states,  firing drones at terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen and all the other things that they do in their ceaseless attempts to “keep us safe” – as Gordon Brown used to put it so sweetly.

Few things are more likely to make the population wake up in the middle of the night and call for Big Daddy State to come and soothe it back to sleep than the threat of ‘bioterrorism’. It’s a word that conjures up images of plagues and flu pandemics penetrating borders and immune systems,  of germs, microbes, and vile, dirty  and unspeakable substances like ricin, botulism, anthrax, and tularemia.

This week the subject of bioterrorism briefly caught the media’s attention, when Professor Paul Keim, chairman of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity,  told the Independent that researchers should be prevented from publishing information on the mutations needed to transform the H5N1 strain of birdflu virus into a human-transmissible version.

Such censorship was necessary, Keim argued “because of fears that terrorists may use the information to create their own H5N1 virus that could be spread easily between people” before governments could develop their own “flu defence infrastructure”, and because governments don’t yet have “the  surveillance capability to spot an emerging virus in time to stop it…If we can slow down the release of the specific information that would enable somebody to reconstruct this virus and do something nefarious, even for a while, then that was a good thing.”

There is no evidence that any government or non-governmental organisation has either the intention or the ability to “do something nefarious” with bird flu, yet here is an expert justifying the restriction of information that other scientists argue might facilitate the development of preventative drugs and vaccines – on the basis of a wholly hypothetical threat.

This threat is almost entirely the result of misinformation, hysteria and exaggeration emanating from governments, for whom bioterrorism invariably provides a trigger for the wildest worst case scenarios.  In 1997, Bill Clinton’s secretary of defence William Cohen appeared on American television,  holding a 5 pound bag of sugar, and warning that an equivalent amount of anthrax would kill half the population of Washington.

Cohen neglected to tell the public that anthrax is difficult to disperse over a wide area, and is therefore not much use in killing large amounts of people.  But such scaremongering was useful, at a time when the Clinton administration was ratcheting up the political pressure on Iraq.

The same rationale underpinned the 2001 wargame Operation Dark Winter   conducted on Andrews Air Base near Washington by assorted generals, spooks and Iraq war hawks, which  imagined a devastating smallpox terrorist attack on America that kills millions, leading to quarantine, civil unrest etc.   Who was responsible for this dastardly act?  You guessed it: terrorists in Afghanistan using material provided by…Iraq.

The anthrax letters that followed the 9/11 attacks appear to have been similarly designed to link the bioterrorist threat to Iraq’s WMD – regardless of the fact that the strain of anthrax originated from US military laboratories.

In the same way the 2003 ‘ricin plot’ in the UK was deliberately cranked up to the maximum by the Blair government in order to highlight the general state of emergency and the threat of Iraq’s WMD.   This plot later turned out to be non-existent, when its alleged perpetrators were put on trial two years later, by which time it had served its purpose.

Most of the groups that Western governments consider to be terrorists have a political context or agenda that does not easily lend itself to germs and pandemics.  Biological weapons don’t present media-friendly spectacles.  Not only is it difficult to transform a flu epidemic or pandemic which causes millions of deaths into a political ‘statement’, but such epidemics can’t be contained or limited to specific ‘targets’

The scare value of bioterrorism relies on the assumption that terrorists are mad and nihilistic.

But historically it has been governments, not terrorists, that have researched and developed viruses and pathogens as military weapons, including our own.  It was often forgotten during the propaganda buildup to the Iraq war, that almost all of Saddam Hussein’s toxic (and defunct) arsenal had been sold to him by European and American governments or by private companies acting with their backing and collusion.

So to some extent bioterrorism is politically useful, and it’s also a lucrative source of funding to the institutions and organisations that pick up vast government budgets to ensure our ‘biosecurity’.

But it’s also a classic case of Freudian projection, in which governments attach onto the terrorist Other the undesirable motivations and desires that they cannot acknowledge in themselves.    No one can rule out the possibility that we might all die as the result of a pandemic, and that someone might one day have the ability and the desire to start one,  just as it’s not impossible that a meteorite might one day hit the earth and wipe us all out like dinosaurs.

But to reserve our fears of biological weapons  for terrorists  and states that we don’t like is not just barking up the wrong tree, it’s also equivalent to a dog barking at the moon.

And one can’t help feeling that some governments like to keep their populations barking at something.


Featured Image: Janice Carr. Wikimedia Commons.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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