Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

And while we're on the subject . . .

of Weapons of Mass Confusion, you have no doubt viewed with alarm the prediction, pulled out of the collective orifices of a government commission, that the U.S. will be attacked with "Weapons of Mass Destruction" by 2013. Now, they can't even predict the weather a week from now, so this is pretty dubious. But . . .

let's talk about biological weapons – pathogens such as anthrax. Anthrax is not contagious. The idea that a small quantity of anthrax spores could kill thousands or millions of people – such as Colin Powell favored us with before the UN Security Council in February 2002 -- is grossly exaggerated. Powell’s calculations assumed that the exact minimum number of spores needed to cause disease could be distributed precisely into each individual's lungs. By the same sort of calculation, 50 pounds of TNT could kill thousands of people because you could divide it precisely into thousands of firecrackers and insert them into thousands of orifices.

If someone were to spray anthrax spores into the air, most of them would never be inhaled and would never harm anyone. (Did you know? Much of the soil in the Southwest United States is already contaminated with anthrax spores.) Only people unlucky enough to inhale a sufficient number, and to be susceptible (susceptibility varies hugely, for unknown reasons) will be affected. Anthrax can be used to sicken or kill a relatively small number of people, in most plausible scenarios. It's scary because you probably won't know you've been exposed until some time later, and if you don’t get the proper diagnosis in time the disease of inhalation anthrax is fatal, although the terror factor has notched down considerably, or should have, since we have learned that it is fully curable.

As we have seen, creating anthrax contamination can cause a substantial economic cost and disruption, as well as kill or harm some people. The anthrax mailer demonstrated a technique of mass disruption that has unique features, no doubt about it. But a truck bomb is a more effective and more certain way to kill large numbers. Even more laughable is the alarm raised by David Kay over a vial of botulism in the back of an Iraqi scientist’s refrigerator. Botulism is anaerobic, which means it can’t grow in the presence of oxygen; therefore the organism is useless as a weapon. The toxin it makes, which is the bad stuff, may be found in refrigerators throughout Beverly Hills, where people inject it into each other’s faces.

The hysteria over botulin toxin is similar to the hysteria over ricin. Ricin is not really a "biological weapon," although for some reason it’s often called one. It's a toxin that happens to be derived from a plant, as are most common poisons. Cyanide, atropine, all the good murder mystery poisons, come from plants. Ricin’s claim to fame is potency by weight, but it's not outstandingly useful as a military or even terrorist weapon (however defined). As a dry powder, it’s not volatile, not easily dispersed. You could open a 50 pound bucket of it in the subway and it would just sit there. However, during the WMD hysteria leading to the attack on Iraq, the federal government and the corporate media had a grand time creating immense conniption fits about ricin. It's easy to make and various common criminals and nut cases have been found with it, so regular yelping about ricin helped maintain the desired atmosphere of fear and hysteria. But there are plenty of perfectly good ways to poison people, available at your corner hardware store.

Then there are chemical weapons, another category of so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (where ricin really belongs). The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan managed to kill 11 people by releasing sarin gas in the subway, but more recently, a man killed hundreds in the subway in South Korea by starting a fire with a milk carton full of paint thinner. Chemical weapons aren’t even especially daunting as battlefield weapons because protective clothing and/or chemical antidotes render them ineffective, just as a vaccine defeats anthrax. No such protection is possible from high explosive and projectile weapons.

Don’t get me wrong – you can definitely kill people with anthrax or poison and that is a very bad thing to do. But think about it: sarin, ricin, anthrax – all these are Weapons of Mass Destruction, while cluster bombs, Daisy Cutters, MOABs, Fuel Air Explosives, Tomahawk cruise missiles, aircraft strafing cannons – the weapons that have already killed thousands of Iraqi civilians and military conscripts, among other accomplishments – aren’t.

How come? Not because category A is inherently more massively destructive than category B. Rather, it’s because the U.S. military has a lot of those high explosive and projectile weapons, and the means to deliver them, and it uses them. The monopoly of massively destructive so-called "conventional" firepower by the world's military powers means we don't call those things Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So what about nukes? Those are definitely Weapons of Mass Destruction, by anybody’s definition, including mine. Well, it's okay for us to have them, and Israel, China, Russia, France, UK, and now Pakistan and India. It's just not okay for anybody else to have them. So let's be clear about the terms of this discussion.

The whole point of the WMD category is not about what kinds of technologies do and do not inherently threaten the most horrible consequences. It’s about who gets to monopolize the use of deadly force. Nerve gas and anthrax do nothing to equalize the battlefield, in reality, but they make for good copy. And even though they seem to really scare people as potential terrorist weapons (we can worry about the exact definition of that another time) it isn’t clear why it’s less scary to contemplate being done in by a fertilizer bomb. Saddam is said to have gassed Kurdish civilians (with the blessing of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the First, so I guess poison gas wasn’t yet a WMD back then) which is indeed a terrible crime. So it would have been alright if he had blown them to pieces instead?

Weapons of Mass Destruction means weapons that relatively weak states or non-state actors might obtain, that we don't want them to have, or that we really don’t care whether they have or not, but which create a useful excuse for belligerence. High explosives can do a lot of damage even without sophisticated delivery systems, as Tim McVeigh and others have proved, but they really become WMDs when married to guided missiles, B1-bombers, and tanks.

So let’s drop this bogus dichotomy. There aren’t two kinds of weapons in the world: Weapons of Mass Destruction, that only we are allowed to have, because we can be trusted not to use them; and every other kind of weapon, that it’s okay for anybody to have even if most people can’t afford the best ones. Possessing sarin or anthrax wouldn’t have made Saddam a threat to his neighbors, and certainly not to the United States. He was militarily impotent with or without them. The lie was not only that he had such weapons, but that it even mattered.


whisker said...

I'm glad you wrote this because in a strict military view chemical weapons are more of a nascent or a speed-bump than anything else. As a weapon against civilians one would have to have a huge volume of the agent to inflict any real mass casualties or like in the Tokyo subway attack contained to a very isolated heavily populated area. If people pay attention and don't panic getting out of the area most of the inflicted have a good chance of getting cleaned up without to much real damage. There's really only one true WMD which is a nuke which in the hands of a terrorist would likely be a very low yield bomb capable of taking out perhaps six to eight square blocks or less. This sounds bad enough but it would have a very localized impact where most people outside to blast radius and some inside would live. This is unlike some of our or the Russian big bombs which can wipe out half the state of South Carolina.

Anonymous said...

Here in Canada, we've already had a biological weapon go off - it s called the Liberal Fart, and it makes everyone stupid.

Watch out for the Liberal Fart. It spreads like crazy.

Cervantes said...

Indeed, Whisker, although I would say that a crude bomb using weapons capable U235 (i.e., somewhere between 25-75% enrichment) might reach 5 or more kilotons in yield, which could, for example, destroy the White House, Executive Office Buildings, Treasury Department and a good deal more even if set off in a fully publicly accessible location, e.g. 14th street; or kill tens of thousands of people in midtown Manhattan. So I do think that's worth worrying about. Not clear where they would get the U235 but I'm a little concerned about Pakistan right now, not so much Iran.

Of course, a real weapons grade nuke, should it get loose - don't even want to think about it.

Now, as for other comments -- I allow them to stand, as they speak for themselves regarding the intelligence of the writer.