The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1
I couldn't agree more that G
You were struck by our general unpreparedness—by how federal and local agencies can't seem to manage overseas or homeland defense programs without messing them up for fear of lawsuits or bad press or giving away secrets to a rival bureaucracy. You homed in on the most appalling example of this: the CIA's withholding key data on
Was disarmament admirable? Idealistic? Maybe even pragmatic, since news of our biochem program could have spurred other countries'? Yes, yes, and yes. But now we see how badly we underestimated the Soviet threat. In 1995, a young diplomat stationed in
Weber quickly did the math: the vessels working at full capacity could brew three hundred tons of anthrax spores in a production cycle of 220 days, enough to fill many ICBMs.
Iraq's entire production could just about fit into a single one of these gigantic vats. Since one hundred grams of dried anthrax was theoretically enough to wipe out a small city, the product of this entire plant alone was more than enough to have killed America's entire population. And the Stepnogorsk complex was only one of at least six Soviet production facilities.
At the same time as the Soviets were manufacturing death in puzzling bulk—what did they plan to do with all this stuff? since the biochem program was secret, it had no deterrent effect—scientists were experimenting with new kinds of smallpox and Ebola and Marbug viruses resistant to antibiotics or able to deliver two diseases at once or to strike as one g
What scares me is not that we screwed up—that was inevitable—but the way in which we screwed up. Our imaginations failed us. Again and again we would try to envision how ugly things could get, and again and again the reality would prove to be uglier. Every single instance of alarmism appears to have understated the problem. According to Miller, Engelberg, and Broad, Bill Clinton is one of the few high-ranking American officials who really grasped the dimensions of the threat—and who devoted real money to fighting it—but he was too distracted by impeachment, etc., to follow up as fully as he should have. What did
Well, here it is. We've entered it. So far it doesn't seem that bad—mailed anthrax seems more nerve-racking than lethal, at least compared to what could have been—but I worry that our imaginations are failing us once again. I, too, would like to know what Miller, Engelberg, and Broad are thinking right now. Part of the story they tell is political. It's about what happens when a people gets in the habit of distrusting its own government so that we won't allow it to study and handle deadly weapons it needs to understand before it can protect us from them. (Our soldiers' misguided refusal to submit to the anthrax vaccine seems like another example of knee-jerk distrust of government. What will they do if they find themselves under anthrax attack?) But I wonder whether the real problem here isn't theological. With our cheery, rationalist worldview, we lack a conception of evil serious enough to grasp what we're up against, let alone to move us to meaningful action. G
Your friendly alarmist,