The Bioterror Threat: Bracing for Armageddon? the Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America

Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Bioterror Threat: Bracing for Armageddon? the Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America


by William R. Clark, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008, 224 pp.

Michael Moodie

World at Risk, a new report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, concludes that "it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorism attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013." The commission, chaired by Bob Graham, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Florida, further states that "terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon" and that "the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospects of a bioterror attack."

William R. Clark, professor of immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Bracing for Armageddon? The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America, is not likely to welcome the commission's findings. In his book, Clark argues that concerns about bioterrorism in the United States have at times "risen almost to the level of hysteria" and that "bioterrorism is a threat in the twenty-first century, but it is by no means, as we have so often been told over the past decade, the greatest threat we face." Clark goes on to say that it is time for the United States "to move on now to a more realistic view of bioterrorism, to tone down the rhetoric and see it for what it actually is: one of many difficult and potentially dangerous situations we--and the world--fear in the decades ahead. And it is certainly time to examine closely just how wisely we are spending billions of dollars annually to prepare for a bioterrorism attack."

It is difficult to disagree with Clark's conclusion that at times during the past decade some people, including some who should know better, have hyped the bioterrorism problem. He is right that "unrealistic statements about the threat posed by bioterrorism continue to this day, at the highest levels of government." Elsewhere, too, he might have added.

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It is also difficult to dispute Clark's view that the money spent to address the bioterrorism problem has not all been wisely spent. Clark suggests that the amount is perhaps around $50 billion. Although it is extremely difficult to come up with a figure in which one can have great confidence, other estimates conclude that it could be 50 to 100% more than that, depending on what one counts. Whatever the amount, it is considerable, and U.S. taxpayers have cause to question whether they have received their money's worth in terms of capabilities to respond effectively to, let alone to prevent, a bioterrorist attack.

Although Clark's points should always be heeded, what is less clear is why he wrote this book to make them. In his preface, Clark states, "What has been lacking in our approach to the threat of political bioterrorism to date is an assessment of exactly how real it is." This is just not the case. For the past decade, a number of experts, both self-styled and genuine, have addressed the bioterrorism problem. These observers have fallen into two distinct categories. One is what might be called the "hypers," to whom Clark points. The other might be called the "calibrators," who have tried quite self-consciously to provide a clear-eyed, balanced, nuanced, and realistic assessment of bioterrorism. Indeed, several of the people Clark thanks in his acknowledgements--Seth Carus, Milton Leitenberg, Amy Smithson, and Ray Zalinskas, among them--fall into this latter category Leitenberg's 2005 book. Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat and Brad Roberts's 2001 book Terrorism with Chemical and Biological Weapons: Calibrating Risks and Responses are only two good examples of several efforts that have taken a balanced view of the bioterrorism threat.

This leads to a second question as to why Clark wrote this book: Why did he choose to cover ground that has been extremely well plowed during the past decade? …

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