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