Challenge of Corking A New Genie Arrests in Nevada Last Week Brought Home - Briefly - the Risk of Biological Weapons
Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Anthrax. The very name of this biological agent sounds menacing - which should not be surprising, as it is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning "burning coal."
It is indeed one of the most dangerous mass-destruction weapons of the post-cold-war era. Many security officials believe that the US may now need to fight the spread of anthrax and other biological threats as intensely as it has long opposed the proliferation of nuclear warheads.
But anthrax is far from a perfect terrorist tool, and it is not yet clear that even Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has acquired more than crude biological weapons, say experts. To call anthrax the "poor man's atom bomb" may be to overstate the case - for now. "The thing about it is that it is very easy to produce, but it is very difficult to deliver effectively," says Jonathan Tucker, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Last week's arrest of two men in Las Vegas thought to be carrying anthrax could be seen as a wake-up call for domestic law-enforcement agencies. The substance in question turned out to be a harmless version of the anthrax bacteria used as a vaccine, but many experts worry that the next Timothy McVeigh may use biological substances instead of explosives - since raw materials of such agents are not that difficult to obtain. Iraq, for instance, has admitted producing huge amounts of the anthrax agent. Of the three categories of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical, and biological - many experts now judge biological to be the greatest threat to the world. That's because they have greater potential than chemical weapons for widespread destruction, and they also represent a technology more widespread than nuclear science. When it comes to terror weapons, "biological weapons should now be the most serious concern," writes Columbia University political science professor Richard Betts in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs. He points out that one plane spraying 100 kilograms of anthrax over Washington on a clear, calm night could produce between 1 million and 3 million casualties, according to a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report. That's 300 times the damage that a similar attack with sarin nerve gas would cause. But "availability" in this case is a relative term. While the raw materials of biological weapons can be easy to get, it is not so easy to turn that material into a usable, dangerous weapon. Consider the case of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a deadly chemical nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995. …