End of the World Scenario: Every Few Years, TIE's Favorite Disasterologist Lays out His Latest Forecast of Doom. Today's Message: Forget Osama Bin Laden. Mother Nature Is the Big Time Threat

By Ledeen, Michael A. | The International Economy, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

End of the World Scenario: Every Few Years, TIE's Favorite Disasterologist Lays out His Latest Forecast of Doom. Today's Message: Forget Osama Bin Laden. Mother Nature Is the Big Time Threat


Ledeen, Michael A., The International Economy


Catastrophists and disasterologists the world over have devoted so much energy and attention to terrorism of late that the professionals risk losing focus. Ever since Jeremiah, we've been taught to keep our eye on the big picture, and to keep the little events in their proper context. Ignore the petty assassin, the great alchemists chanted, watch the erupting volcanoes, the quaking earth, and the sliding land. Remain constantly alert to the infectious diseases, our modern prophets intone, remember that Nature is more violent than Man, and that Nature often uses Man to do her murderous bidding ... thereby increasing the risk from our ancient burdens: pestilence, war and famine. Even as we are preoccupied with Osama and Omar, our attention is deflected from killer spores and microbes, from shifting ocean currents and simmering volcanoes.

Here, then, is a call to return to fundamentals:

PESTILENCE

We must begin, as we so often have in these reflections on our collective mortality, with disease. And we refer the avid reader and the medical scholar to the writings of Rockefeller University's distinguished emeritus president, Doctor Joshua Lederberg, who for many years has been telling us that the microbes have taken our best shot, and are now waging a massive counteroffensive against antibiotics and the other "wonder drugs" that, not so long ago, were believed to have accomplished the final solution to the microbe problem. Bit by bit they advance, rolling back our firewalls: tuberculosis that beats our best medicine, AIDS that finds ways to overcome the miraculous "cocktails" that gave extra decades of life to HIV victims, and now some of the African plagues have reached our shores: Ebola, West Nile, and no doubt others whose names we do not know today.

These, far more than the most lethal components of al Qaida's tool box, are the true weapons of mass destruction. We might catch the terrorists, and in short order we will destroy the Terror Masters--the evil regimes in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia--that have empowered the terror network for the past decade, after the Soviet Empire was imploded by Ronald Reagan. The microbes are more patient than Saddam or the mullahs in Tehran, and their weapons are more fearsome than even his biologicals. We probably know what he and his minions are able to use, while Mother Nature is always concocting new bugs.

The key to mass murder by any disease is the delivery system. For the most part, it's rather difficult to contract HIV; it requires activity on the part of the victim, whether it be sexual or use of infected needles. Unless you're terribly unlucky, so long as you avoid the dangerous behavior you'll be safe from the retrovirus. A more efficient disease moves through the air, spread either by insects or by "aerosol" (sneezing, coughing, or heavy breathing). West Nile's got a chance, because it uses mosquitoes, long one of Mother Nature's favorite delivery systems. To be sure, it used to be even better, when mosquitoes had free reign and spread the likes of yellow fever a mile a minute in the Canal Zone and thence to the U.S. proper, as mosquitoes carry malaria all over sub-Saharan Africa nowadays. We then counterattacked with DDT, as miraculous a weapon as any ever used, only to convince ourselves that the cure was as bad as the disease, and thus disarmed unilaterally by throwing away our flit guns. The malaria microbes have been particularly grateful for this reprieve, and have now evolved into varieties that we cannot kill before they kill us. Chris Matthews should be grateful that he only got the old-fashioned version, and even so he had a real struggle to overcome it.

The restrictions on DDT are akin to the Cold War's foolish doctrine of MAD--Mutual Assured Destruction--that permitted our enemies the same degree of lethality as ourselves. Maybe now that we've become the world's lone superpower we'll go for overkill against the microbes' carriers, too. …

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