Plagued Out


On Sunday, October 14, Judith Miller of The New York Times wrote of her personal anthrax scare, “As I washed my hands and tried to dust off the powder that clung to my pants and shoes, I thought about what Bill Patrick, my friend and bioweapons mentor had told me . . . ”

We should all be so lucky to have as friend and “bioweapons mentor” someone who, according to Miller’s book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, infected “volunteers” with Q fever microbes to see what dosages were effective in producing illness, a man who was “overjoyed” when a field test on animals went south and people who weren’t supposed to get sick did, because it proved his team of sorcerer’s apprentices were producing “a product that was very, very good.” The reader is informed that everyone survived. That made it all right?

In a better world, a Bill Patrick would have been given the bum’s rush a long time ago, but, like it or not, we are saddled with him as one of our bioterror gurus. Why? Because the inverse logic seems to be that if you spent most of your life making things to sicken people fatally, you are, perhaps, more valuable as an adviser on the subject of biological evil, malfeasance, and mischief than someone who benightedly dedicated their life to defeating infectious diseases.

Patrick’s fermentations seep through almost the entirety of Germs. He’s Dr. StrangeBug, talking to a military group about how the U.S. supposedly had a plan to attack Cuba with two microorganisms to pacify it (“killing less than two percent of the population”), deriving statistics on how many people might be slain or made seriously ill with his viruses and bacteria, giving a now unintentionally idiotic play-by-play description of how someone with his expertise could hose down half the people in the World Trade Center with tularemia armed only with a trusty garden sprayer.

In Germs (Simon & Schuster), Miller and her co-authors, Times journalists Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, cover a wide swath of people, groups, and nations who have, at one time or another, been deeply engaged in this nasty game. While almost all of it has been published in the Times or elsewhere, it probably has not previously been as thoroughly annotated.

In the quest to inform readers on the subject of biological weaponry, the pro forma rule in writing on the subject has been horrification for the sake of horrification. One need only look at the reputation of Richard Preston, the genre’s equivalent of the splatter-movie director. In influential investigative articles on bio-terror for The New Yorker and a novel about the same, The Cobra Event, Preston never met a virus that did not melt bodies, induce people to mutilate themselves, or cause the spurting of quarts of black and red ichors. In this respect, Miller and her co-authors’ work stands out, being largely free of nauseating descriptions of the terminal stages of disease.

But Germs is also filled with well-researched arcana that, while academically interesting, would have little meaning with regards to the current predicament, in which tiny lots of bad stuff touch small numbers through the mails. While the authors could not foresee into what milieu their work would be published, the book is still too much about big numbers and the alleged capacity for creating thousands of illnesses with blinding speed.

The minute attention to the bureaucratic arguments involved in working out the details of the technology of killing is deadening. For example, just how interested are you in knowing the debate over how much anthrax it would take to kill perhaps half the people in Washington, D.C. A five-pound bag? An 80-pound bag? Or a 50-pound bag? It turns out, Germs reveals, that Patrick had the answer: The 50-pound bag. And Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary William Cohen certainly
exaggerated when he held up a five-pound bag of sugar on TV and said that if it was anthrax it could do the same. Hey, knock yourself out.

The savage dilemma of Germs and books of the type is that, without exception, they implacably develop into a generic litany of speculations, extremely terrible news–some hearsay, some not–and fearsome applications said to be possible right now or in the not-too-distant future. Common sense dictates that if it is all true, we will only be spared a gruesome end by blind luck or intervention of the deity.

Germs, according to Larry King on Monday, is a national bestseller. Maybe so, but if you think you’ve been overexposed to anthrax already, avoid it like the plague. Please have mercy, dear authors. We get the idea.

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