A Vocabulary of Dis-Ease: Argumentation, Hot Zones, and the Intertextuality of Bioterrorism

Article excerpt

"[A]s nothing exists outside the text, there is never a whole of the text."

--Roland Barthes

On February 19, 2010, the FBI closed its investigation into the 2001 anthrax mail attacks, concluding on the basis of an array of circumstantial evidence that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had produced and mailed the anthrax spores. Ivins had committed suicide in July 2008 allegedly as a result of the pressure of the FBI's investigation, but neither Ivins's death nor the FBI's decision that it could adequately prove its case in fact resulted in an end to the public deliberation about the anthrax attacks. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), for example, immediately called for a congressional review of the FBI's work and decision to close the inquiry (Shane, 2010). More than merely a final step in legal or administrative protocol, the FBI's closing of the case despite ongoing public argumentation reveals the wish to say completely, to make present in its epistemological totality, the truth of the U.S. experience of bioterrorism. Such a truth would be more than simply accurate data gathered through forensic science; it would be only that data with the additional stipulation that there is nothing more to be said, no more text to interpret, even as the U.S. public continues to negotiate what bioterrorism means for society. An actual trial would have demonstrated the fundamental impossibility of truly closing the case by making plain that the FBI's conclusion was not settled truth but an argument. Whatever the final verdict, Ivins's guilt or innocence would have been determined by the effect of a multitude of persuasive appeals toward the jury rather than the ontological fact of whether or not he produced and mailed the anthrax spores.

The assumption of a phenomenal world knowable as a kind of closed truth, however, is an epistemological feature endemic to the vast majority of U.S. risk communication about the threat posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism. Analyses of perceived failures of bioterrorism risk communication cite the public's undesirable behaviors or lack of accurate medical knowledge as an inability on the part of the audience to respond appropriately to the objective facts of disease. Thus, following the 2001 anthrax mail attacks, Marshall, Begier, Griffith, Adams, and Hadler (2005) cite the fact that tens of thousands of people took ciprofloxacin prophylactically, given the occurrence of five deaths out of a total 22 infections, to conclude that "[t]he anthrax attacks caused a national reaction out of proportion to the event itself" (p. 247). Neither the uncertainty about the extent of exposure in the midst of the anthrax mailings nor an abundance of public health caution adequately explains the response. While public health officials erred on the side of caution in cases with any reasonable possibility of exposure and provided the antibiotic for prophylactic use, orders through private insurers skyrocketed, with widespread concerns about hoarding of the publicized drug-of-choice against anthrax (Petersen & Pear, 2001). Many factors contributing to the alarm surrounding the anthrax attacks have been studied, and Vanderford (2003) stated that "[t]raining in the new field of risk communication has been offered as the best solution to communication problems in future emergencies" (p. 11) handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication textbook (Reynolds, 2002) utilized for this training relies, like several other studies on bioterrorism risks conducted for the CDC, upon a general epistemology that contrasts a world of accurate information to exaggerations or public misunderstanding of risk and crisis communication (see Ayotte, Bernard, & O'Hair, 2009, pp. 617-18).

This epistemological assumption can be seen across scholarship adopting what is essentially a deficit model of public health knowledge. …

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