"Our imaginations failed us." 

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

"Our imaginations failed us." 

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

"Our imaginations failed us." 
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Nov. 6 2001 3:44 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1


Dear Geraldine,


I couldn't agree more that Germs lacks the punch of a Hot Zone and is not a book to be read before bed. And yet I stayed up past midnight last night, unable to stop reading it, until I forced myself to turn out the light, had all the foreseeable nightmares, woke up in a sweat, and decided I might as well finish the damn thing. Why? I think the book has induced my second post-9/11 post-traumatic stress attack.

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 Iraq's hidden germ factories from U.N. inspectors struggling valiantly to locate them and prove to the world that they exist. Me, I was struck by an even bigger blunder, the mother of all snafus. I'm talking about America deciding unilaterally to dismantle what little it had in the way of a biological and chemical weapons program in 1969. Out of the crazy goodness of our hearts, we shut down our laboratories, destroyed our biological and chemical stockpiles, and for nearly 20 years made it nearly impossible for our scientists to figure out what other countries were up to or develop antidotes against it. I predict that this decision will go down in history as the single stupidest thing we did to ourselves in that noble, foolish decade, the '60s.

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 Uzbekistan happened, by virtue of his unusual talent for wining and dining Uzbeki officials, to get himself invited to Stepnogorsk, a former Soviet bacteriological production site. No one really knew what had gone on inside it before the fall of the Soviet Union. The place was still off-limits, abandoned as it was. What did the diplomat, Andy Weber, find? A decaying wreck of a plant, completely unprotected, whose main building, two football fields long, was filled with enormous vats:

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 germ and then mutate into another. What were we doing while the Soviets got more and more sophisticated? Nothing. What did we do once the Soviet Union ceased to exist and all these extremely advanced germ warriors lost their jobs and began be recruited by Iran or Iraq or God knows who—Osama Bin Laden, surely? Very little. Defectors would come to the United States and tell their stories and be disbelieved, only to be proven right years later. American scientists would beg the Pentagon and Congress for money for programs to hire ex-Soviet scientists, so they'd work for us, not for some other country, but until very recently, no dice. Too risky from a public relations perspective, plus those pesky Russkies might double-cross us and develop even more weapons.

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 Clinton understand? J. Craig Venter, the head of Genomic Research and the person who alerted Clinton to the dangers of biochemical warfare, once explained Clinton's insight: "He said throughout history the biggest changes have come when there were new offensive weapons without defensive ones, and he was worried that we were entering such a period."

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. Germ warfare is real, as it has been for more than 50 years. It's happening and happening fast. Will we squander our time and money finding fault with the devil we know—the confused and often incompetent U.S. government—or will we rally behind those who are trying, as effectively as they can, which isn't very effectively, to fight the real demons loose in the world?

Your friendly alarmist,