Why we(Canada) can't sit on the fence: guns, germs and fear

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Why we can't sit on the fence: guns, germs and fear

By MARGARET WENTE Thursday, October 11, 2001 – Page A21

There's some good news, I guess, about the death by anthrax of Bob Stevens last week. So far, there's no evidence that it was the result of a terrorist attack. So far, it's merely a grotesque coincidence that Mr. Stevens worked for a lurid American tabloid in a building located right down the road from the South Florida neighbourhood where Osama bin Laden's gang of terrorists hung out, and that the tabs have been targeting the übervillain with screaming headlines. It's just a coincidence that Mr. Stevens was the first person to die of anthrax inhalation in the United States in 25 years, and the first reported case of anthrax exposure inside a building.

That's the good news. The bad news is, it was not an accident. The anthrax bacteria were released on purpose into the air in the building, and came from a strain that had been bioengineered in a lab. A second victim, a mailroom employee, is now recovering. The chance that there was no human intervention, said a top U.S. health official, is "nil to zero."

Just a loony with a grudge? Let's hope. But if a loony with a grudge can get his hands on anthrax and "weaponize" it, as the experts put it, then so can a terrorist with a mission.

"There are about 15 or 16 countries where there are programs studying biological weapons," says microbiologist Donald Lowe, who is chief of Toronto Medical Laboratories. Not all of them are nice guys. One is Iraq, a long-time friend of Osama bin Laden. During the Persian Gulf war, Saddam Hussein's labs made enough germs to kill everyone on the planet. The U.S. bombed the labs, but didn't get them all. Then there's Kazakhstan, once part of the Soviet Union, which built up huge stockpiles of plague, smallpox and other nasty stuff. No one knows the whereabouts of those germs, or of the scientists who cooked them up.

Once upon a time, we thought the most noxious substances on our horizon were genetically modified foods and secondhand smoke. Allan Rock raised a ruckus over them, and demanded labels on food and cigarettes to warn us of the dangers. But bioterror? Not to worry. "The biggest disease we have to face right now is fear, and there's no reason for Canadians to regard this as anything but a remote threat," he said on Tuesday. Our public-health officials are working hard to keep us safe, he reassured us. Well, what else could he say?

In a well-timed new book called Germs,three New York Times reporters lay out enough evidence of biothreats to keep anyone awake at night. They document the ease with which a terrorist group can make a germ weapon "from a few handfuls of backyard dirt and some widely available lab equipment." They remind us that Mr. bin Laden has tried to get biological weapons from Russian organized crime. And they warn that, when it comes to public-health protection, you might as well forget about it. You could well be dead before the officials even know you're sick.

Last June, a group of U.S. security experts and political leaders ran a simulation exercise called "Dark Winter." In it, they tried to contain a small, simulated outbreak of bioterrorist-induced smallpox. They couldn't. Within three months, it had killed a million simulated people in 10 countries.

The Germs authors interviewed just about every expert in North America and found they were widely divided about the likelihood of an attack. Dr. Low told me he thinks it's small; Bill Patrick, a leading U.S. germ-warfare expert, says it's "highly likely." Dr. Low adds that the worry factor is greater since Sept. 11, because we now know moral constraints no longer apply. Terrorists will kill anyone, including themselves.

Even as our country commits our ships and planes and men and women to back America, quite a few Canadians continue to argue that we should not get off the fence. "No middle ground is being allowed," complained yet another commentator on the CBC yesterday. We are being pushed into "group mindthink" and forced into a simplistic choice between "good" and "evil." Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy argued this week that, if we participate in military operations, we will compromise "our value as an independent player."

Besides, our officials reassure us, Canada is not a terrorist target.

That's nice. But the germs don't know that.

"There are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life," said an al-Qaeda spokesman on TV the other day, in case we needed reminding. Can anyone doubt that, if some of those young men have deadly germs or chemicals, they will try to commit mass murder with them?

It's hard to imagine how Canadians could ever have an easier moral choice than the one we have now. Maybe the people who are wringing their hands about being pushed off the fence should contemplate what a vial of smallpox might do.



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 12, 2001

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