- Bracing for Armageddon?: The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America
- Oxford University Press, 224 pp.
“An Event of Low Probability but High Consequence”
He proclaimed himself “the Sacred Emperor of Japan.” He is also legally blind and as malicious in his intent as Hannibal Lector. His menacing appearance is accentuated by his fixed stare, his long and unkempt hair and scraggly beard. Shoko Asahara was the founder in 1984 of Aum Shinrikyo; the “religion of Truth.” The group adhered unquestioningly to Shoko Asahar’s messily eclectic blend of Buddhism, Christianity, Nostradamus and Asahar’s endless ipse dixitisms that were as disheveled and ill-organized as his coiffure. He had some 49,000 followers in Japan, 10,000 more in Russia and offices in Manhattan and elsewhere.
Asahara amassed hundreds of million dollars and sent agents to far-flung destinations to ferret out information and materials for use in bioweapons.
In 1995, he sought to hasten the apocalypse and seize earthly power by spreading an unlikely sacrament, sarin gas, in the Tokyo subway system. This event killed twelve people outright and injured another thousand or more, many of them seriously. The group had carried out a previous gassing, a sort of practice run for the Tokyo event, in the outlying town of Matsumoto. Seven died.
Aum Shinrikyo did not limit itself to nerve gas as an agent of terror. A subsequent detailed investigation into their activities in the years preceding the subway attack revealed, that cult scientists had also endeavored to develop lethal biological terror weapons as early as 1990….They never did manage to produce an effective weapon based on biological agents.
There were perhaps a dozen ineffective attempts by Aum Shinrikyo to create acts of terror with biological agents. In instances astounding for their sheer audacity, the group attempted to use botulism toxin in attacks against the Japanese Parliament, a portion of Tokyo Airport, and ships of the mighty United State Seventh Fleet that were moored in Yokohama Harbor. Though the Aum Shinrikyo used millions of dollars in such efforts and possessed a well-equipped lab staffed by individuals of considerable scientific expertise, the assaults were totally ineffective. Asahara is now imprisoned in Japan awaiting hanging. His descent into infamy is deftly summarized by William R. Clark in Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America.
In the same chapter one reads the story of the Rajneesh cult. In 1981 the group established an incorporated township, Rajeeshpuram, on 40,000 acres in Oregon. Rajneesh is notable not only because of the guru’s ownership of 90 Rolls Royces, five private jets, and a helicopter, but for the fact that in 1985 members of the group took enough time off from their demanding regimen of sex, drugs and meditation to seed the salad bars of local restaurants with generous dollops of Salmonella. This organism caused violent digestive upsets in a number of local residents. The intent was to affect the outcome of a local election by disabling voters. The event is categorized by Clark as biocrime as opposed to bioterrorism.
Clark also provides an account of “Amerithrax,” the mailing of anthrax spores in 2001. The account is all the more interesting in that it was written prior to the recent suicide of Bruce Ivins, a United States government microbiologist and vaccinologist for 36 years. He was a senior biodefense researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, MD. Ivins remains the FBI’s prime suspect in Amerithrax. In Bracing for Armnageddon, Clark wrote “the spores involved were very unlikey to have been made by a nonscientists in a garage laboratory, and certainly not in a cave in Afghanistan.” Presciently enough, Clark refers to “…disgruntled American scientists, as was likely the case with the case with the spores used in Amerithrax….”
And there are others: The Minnesota Patriots Council: “A group of disgruntled right-wing individuals” manufactured the deadly poison ricin to exact revenge against assorted government entities.
Larry Wayne Harris, a member of a group called The Christian Patriots and an officer of the Neo-Nazi group Aryan Nation is a trained microbiologist. He carried out research on weaponizable pathogens such as bubonic plague in his home laboratory.
These bioterrorists and their followers are fascinating because of their peculiar and occasionally lethal combination of criminality and psychopathology. Yet their stories are but one chapter of ten in Waiting for Armageddon. The book also provides thought-provoking overviews of a number of other aspects of bioterrorism; its history, the likely agents now available and those that may become available.
Chapter one of Waiting for Armageddon, “Tales of a Dark Winter,” provides a chilling rendition of a 2001 “smallpox attack by bioterrorists.” Though it is based on a government sponsored exercise, it is well written enough to be as dramatic as any thriller. Clark notes that, “The question policymakers now face is how much preparation is enough? How do we know when we are safe, or at least as safe as we can expect to be? The underlying programs continue to be sold to the Congress and the American public largely by playing on fears of bioterrorism.”
According to the federal government’s wide-ranging Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, a guideline for the fifty states, bioterrorism is:
…the intentional use of any naturally occurring microorganism, virus, infectious substance, or biological product, or any bioengineered component to of such microorganism, virus, infectious substance, or biological product, to cause death, disease or other biological malfunction in a human, animal, a plant or other living organism in order to influence the conduct of government, or intimidate or coerce a civilian population.
The government’s “A list” pathogens include agents of such ghastly diseases as Ebola, Marburg, and bubonic plague. The threat that such natural viruses may be used in bioterrorist attacks is well understood. Bracing for Armageddon also considers the threat of bioengineered horrors: CIA research scientists believed Soviet scientists “spliced a gene for diphtheria toxin into a plague genome, creating a genuine monster of a pathogen. They were also thought to have stitched in genes that blocked a victim’s immune system from responding, depriving the body of its first line of defense.”
Clark describes various public health measures in place as part of the defense against natural pandemics or biological warfare. In cases of severe emergency, areas may be quarantined. Available vaccines and remedies for the most likely threats are maintained in agreed upon amounts by the manufacturer, the supplies kept fresh by systematic rotation. There are also other disease fighting agents in top secret storage facilities.
Considering the repeated failure of bioterrorists produce any appreciable number of casualties, it isn’t surprising that this mode of asymmetric warfare is characterized as “an event of low probability but high consequence.” The effects on a community of a deadly assault by agents that are invisible and generally ill understood can induce sheer chaos.
Bracing for Armageddon provides a skillfully written and highly accessible overview of bioterrorism. While some bits of information may be challenging for the non-scientist (e.g. the details of the seasonal transformation of flu and related viruses), Clark’s well-organized book includes extensive and helpful endnotes, an index, and a glossary.
Clark points out that though we have spent some fifty billion dollars on bioterrorism preparation, naturally occurring influenza routinely kills 40,000 or so people each year in the United States. The flu pandemic of 1918 happened to coincide with the final months of World War I. “Half of our troops (who died) in this war died of the flu – not from artillery shells, bullets, or poison gas….We don’t really know how many died worldwide. Estimates range from twenty-five million to fifty or even a hundred million….” In the United States, “between six and seven hundred thousand perished…more than have died in all U.S. wars through Vietnam.”
During the “Black Death,” the Bubonic Plague epidemics of the 15th and 16th centuries — one half to one third of the population died. Social institutions collapsed. Even the church came into wide-spread disrepute. The feudal order was upended forever.
New microbial threats, such as antibiotic resistant strains of disease germs evolve naturally. Their occurrence is increased by modern agricultural methods such as feedlots for immense numbers of cattle which are chronically fed antibiotics to keep them from sickening on their unnatural grain-based diet, a regimen that makes them grow to slaughter weight faster.
Is it possible, Clark asks, that some portion of the amount spent on bioterrorism would be more wisely spent on general public health measures? Since the challenges of global warming are undeniable, where should our tax dollars best be spent in that respect? Is the challenge of global warming and a reasoned expectation of more Katrina-like occurrences a more serious consideration than the five lives lost so far in the U.S. to bioterrorism? What preparation is appropriate for the challenges of this and a bioterrorist attack? Chapter 10 involves challenging commentary on such considerations.
Clark impresses one as a highly knowledgeable, reliable narrator with no personal or political axe to grand. His topic has implications that are remarkably far ranging for our society; for our monetary and defense policy, for the nation’s health, culture, military, work force, transportation system and even our religious institutions. Bracing for Armageddon provides a valuable reference for an informed citizenry.
William R. Clark is the author of over 120 articles in scientific journals and has also written some half dozen books on medical and scientific topics for the general public. He is also an internationally recognized authority on “killer T Cell” lymphocytes, specialized white blood cells that are produced in the bone marrow and activated by the thymus. They are of importance in viral immunity and also in transplant rejection. Dr. Clark is Chair Emeritus of the Immunology Department of UCLA.
John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He later studied medicine and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group. He practiced family medicine in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published widely. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine “The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online.” Tianjin Grand Bridge