Mass Destruction or
Mass Distraction?

You can definitely count me among those who are skeptical of the official cover story that Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide recently as the FBI seemed to be closing in on him, was solely responsible for the series of anthrax attacks on people in Congress and the media in September-October 2001. What is missed in much of the discussion, however, is the fact that anthrax, like chemical, radiological, and other biological weapons, while capable of creating significant disruption in a society, is simply not capable of creating significant numbers of deaths. The habit of classifying them along with nuclear missiles as “weapons of mass destruction” is misleading and may even have been a propaganda ploy to make the American people more fearful and therefore more willing to go along with whatever expensive programs, irrelevant attacks, or limitations on freedom the government initiates as alleged counters to the alleged threats.

It is certainly the case that the anthrax attacks of 2001 became a key psychological component of the buildup to the Iraq war. Vice President Cheney and others pushed the story – implausible then and since completely discredited – that only a state actor hostile to the U.S. could have produced the anthrax in the envelopes mailed to various prominent people, and the most likely culprit was – drum roll, please – Saddam Hussein. Despite the “mushroom cloud” rhetoric, it is likely that nobody believed Saddam had anything close to nuclear weapons, though some may have believed sincerely that he had an active program to develop them. But almost everybody, including more than a few opponents of the war, believed it was likely that he had chemical and biological weapons available for deployment.

While the anthrax envelopes killed only five people and made 22 sick, the subsequent cleanup was extensive and expensive, so the attack was disruptive if not all that deadly. It fulfilled the classic goal of terrorism to create widespread fear, whether reasoned or not, that people like you and me could be vulnerable to a surprise attack. The notion that Saddam Hussein had such agents on hand – conveniently classified with nukes as WMD – certainly was a factor in convincing all too many people that the sensible thing to do was to take him out before he had a chance to use them (or to use them again, if the Cheney-led hype had seeped into a corner of the unconscious and remained lodged there despite the absence of anything resembling real evidence).

If the recent flurry of publicity over anthrax is to be a real “teachable moment,” however, the lesson we should come away with is that chemical and biological warfare by stateless actors, while not nothing as a threat, should be way down the list of things to worry about or spend resources trying to counter. Some of us pointed this out back in 2001 and 2002, but it’s worth reemphasizing.

Theory and Practice

The fear of biological weapons is not entirely irrational. It is true that tiny amounts of agents like ricin or botulinum toxin can be deadly to human beings. Anthrax can be deadly if inhaled or ingested or if it comes into contact with the skin. The upper-edge estimate is that about 50,000 spores of anthrax is a deadly dose, and one gram of the kind of anthrax that was mailed to Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy in 2001 contained up to a trillion spores. So if the two letters contained two grams, it was theoretically enough to kill at least 40 million people, and maybe tens of millions more.

However, the fact that these letters and the five others mailed to media outlets – which theoretically likely contained enough spores to wipe out the entire population of the U.S. – ended up killing five people and sickening 22 illustrates the difficulty of converting deadly tiny doses into effective weapons. The envelope attacks and various other efforts by terrorist groups in recent years to use biological agents to kill large numbers of people go a long way toward explaining why these threats are more theoretical than tangible. Small-scale localized attacks could do some harm, but large-scale effective attacks are probably impossible. Conventional weapons and explosives used in “unconventional” ways are far more deadly.

To be sure, obtaining biological agents, many of which occur in nature, is fairly simple. Isolating a virulent strain is much more difficult, requiring secure installations and a certain amount of technological know-how. But the real challenge is distributing those isolated strains to the intended targets. Envelopes are one thing. An attempt to use anthrax over an entire city or neighborhood is almost certain to fail because of dilution, wind, and the susceptibility of the viruses to ultraviolet light, heat, dryness, or rain. Furthermore, anthrax is not an untreatable super disease, nor is it readily transmitted from person to person.

Sub-Optimal Subway Attacks

The most relevant recent experience illustrating the difficulty of killing great masses of people might be the case of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which used the sarin nerve agent in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing about eight people and sickening hundreds, perhaps thousands (although many who went to hospitals were the “worried well” rather than unquestionably sick). After those attacks, the Japanese government cracked down on the cult and learned a great deal about just how extensive its efforts had been to create massive numbers of deaths to set up whatever Armageddon-like scenario the cult believed would hasten its version of the end times.

Aum Shinrikyo began it s extensive effort to develop biological weapons in the late 1980s. The cult had plenty of money and other resources, so its efforts approached the state of the art. It found capable scientists to work on the project and experimented with botulinum toxin, cholera, and anthrax. It also made some effort to acquire Ebola virus.

In 1990 it was ready for its first attack. In April 1990, according to a recent report, “the group used a fleet of trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers on targets that included the Imperial Palace, the National Diet of Japan, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, two U.S. naval bases, and the airport in Narita. In spite of the massive quantities of toxin released, there were no mass casualties, and, in fact, nobody outside of the cult was even aware the attacks had taken place.”

Back to the labs and the drawing boards, with a focus on anthrax. By 1993 the group had enough to make another effort at a megadeath attack. Between June and August “the group sprayed thousands of gallons of aerosolized liquid anthrax in Tokyo. This time, Aum not only employed its fleet of sprayer trucks but also used aerosol sprayers mounted on the roof of their headquarters to disperse a cloud of aerosolized over the city. Again, the attacks produced no results and were not even noticed.” After that the cult decided to attack an enclosed subway system and use ricin. But even this attack, while surely “successful” at a certain level, did not produce mass deaths.

Aum Shinrikyo operated in a first-world country with millions of dollars and ready access to deadly organisms. It was able to build large laboratories in industrial parks, without any attempts at control or disruption by the government, which was apparently entirely unaware of the project. If the intelligence reports are correct, al-Qaeda is now operating in the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistani border, without the official permission and cooperation of any government, as it had in Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks. It would have to build large fixed facilities, which could be taken out with a few bombs, to try to produce large quantities of toxins. Even if it produced them, it would have to transport them halfway across the world to attack the U.S. or Western Europe.

It is likely al-Qaeda is not devoting a lot of resources to cooking up a biological or chemical weapons attack. The group, like most terrorist outfits, tends to abandon tactics that don’t work. The 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people and the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 used what we like to classify as conventional weapons. The sicko who committed the Virginia Tech shooting killed 33 people, more than six times as many as were killed in the anthrax envelope attacks. And remember the “D.C. Sniper” of 2002? With one rifle, he created considerable panic and killed twice as many people (10) as the anthrax envelopes did.

The lessons to be drawn if this is a teachable moment? While a certain amount of concern about chemical and biological weapons is warranted, the cold reality is that they are unlikely to be employed in anything other than small, localized attacks. And the common classification of them with nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction is unwarranted and unjustified. They are different and scary, but they are not WMDs, and we should resist those who would classify them as such. Modern artillery is a much more effective weapon of mass destruction than chemical and biological weapons, and nuclear weapons are quite simply in a class by themselves. We should leave them in that class instead of trying to alarm people by putting lesser weapons in the same category.

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Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).