Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America

Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America

Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America

Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America

Synopsis

Since September 11th, the threat of a bioterrorist attack--massive, lethal, and unpreventable--has hung in the air over America.Bracing for Armageddon'offers a vividly written primer for the general reader, shedding light on the science behind potential bioterrorist attacks and revealing what could happen, what is likely to happen, and what almost certainly will not happen.
The story opens with a riveting account of a bioterrorism scenario commissioned by the U.S. government. Using this doomsday tableau as a springboard, Clark reviews a host of bioterrorist threats (from agroterrorism to a poisoning of the water supply) and examines not only the worst-case menace of genetically engineered pathogens, but also the lethal agents on the CDC's official bioterrorism list, including Smallpox, Anthrax, Plague, Botulism, and Ebola. His overview of attempted bioterrorist attacks to date--such as the failed Aum Shinrikyo attempts in 1995 in Japan and the Anthrax attack in the US following 9/11--bolstered by interviews with a range of experts--shows why virtually all of these attempts have failed. Indeed, he demonstrates that a successful bioterrorism attack is exceedingly unlikely, while a major flu epidemic (such as the deadly epidemic of 1918 that killed millions worldwide) is a virtual certainty. Given the long odds of a bioterrorist attack, Clark asks, has the more than $40 billion the United States has dedicated to the defense against bioterrorism really been well spent? Is it time to move on to other priorities?
In contrast to the alarmist fears stoked by the popular media, William Clark here provides a reassuring overview of what we really need to worry about--and what we don't.

Excerpt

Over the past two decades, an enormous effort has been mounted by numerous federal and state agencies to prepare America to defend against the possibility of a bioterrorist attack. This effort jumped ahead at warp speed following the horrendous World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the postal anthrax scares just a few weeks later. Five people died in these latter incidents, considered by some to be the opening salvos in a new form of terrorism brought to our shores. By the end of 2008, the United States will have spent nearly fifty billion dollars upgrading almost every conceivable aspect of our ability to respond defensively to a catastrophic bioterrorism attack.

Concerns about bioterrorism in America, while certainly justified in many respects, have at times and in some quarters risen almost to the level of hysteria. Part of the reason for this is doubtless the conflation of bioterrorism with a larger “war on terror.” Declaring war on something is a time-honored way in American politics to raise an issue to a level of unquestionable urgency. Another part of the terror of bioterrorism is that, unlike terrorism using other weapons—bombs, chemicals, nuclear devices— bioterrorism is based on things we cannot see and few of us understand. We rely on scientific experts to explain them to us, adding yet another layer of uncertainty, both for the public and for our political leaders. Science is not always objective, and scientific experts themselves have differing points of view—political . . .

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