Confronting the Horror
of Biological Warfare
The Los Angeles Times 11-30-97

NEWARK, N.J.--Saddam Hussein's biological game-playing should fool no one. Following Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi leader agreed to let U.N. inspectors supervise the elimination of his country's germ and chemical weapons. Six years later, the inspectors are convinced that Iraq still is hiding germ-war leftovers, and maybe some new stocks.
But while trying to find and destroy these arsenals, U.N. inspectors have been denied entry to Hussein's palaces. Last week, the Iraqis suddenly announced that the palaces might be opened to inspection, but U.S. officials remained wary. There are 78 of them, any of which could be a biological-weapons factory.
Whether Hussein's principal aim is to taunt the United States and its allies or to intimidate his neighbors is unclear. But anything less than unconditional access to suspected locations would invite a biological or chemical nightmare.
One special fright about germ weapons is just how quickly and easily they can be made. A single disease-producing bacterium, which can divide every 20 minutes, could give rise to more than a billion bacteria in 10 hours. Thus, a vial about the size of a bottle of aspirin tablets could yield a huge arsenal in less than a week. For some diseases, like anthrax, inhaling a few thousand bacteria, which would take up less area than the period at the end of this sentence, could be fatal.
Without the restraint imposed by outside monitors, Iraq's know-how from its earlier biological and chemical warfare programs could create a catalog of horrors. A whiff of a nerve agent like sarin or VX, or a single drop on the skin, can kill in minutes.
But a biological arsenal would be even more frightening. A 1993 government study indicated that 220 pounds of anthrax bacteria released from a slow-flying airplane could kill 3 million people. And anthrax is not even contagious. An attack with the bacteria that cause plague, or the viruses that cause smallpox, could start an epidemic.
The 1995 release of sarin by a Japanese cult in the Tokyo subway showed how dreadful a chemical attack could be. The nerve agent killed 12 people and injured 5,500. Had the poison been a biological agent, the subway might still be unusable, as past biological warfare tests suggest. During the 1940s, British and American scientists released anthrax bacteria in tests on Gruinard Island, off the coast of Scotland. It took 40 years before the island could be sufficiently decontaminated for humans to return.
Similarly, during a six-day period in 1966, the army released bacteria it considered to be harmless, called bacillus subtilis, into the New York subway. Testers would toss a light bulb filled with bacteria onto the tracks as a train entered the station. The air currents whipped up by the train spread the germs around.
Although presenting some risk to passengers, those bacteria were not as dangerous as actual germ-war agents. But the test showed that more than a million New Yorkers were exposed to the bacilli. The army's report concluded that had the bacteria been true pathogens, "a large portion of the working population in downtown New York City would be exposed to disease." Contagious agents would have infected passengers who then would unknowingly transmit disease to their families and friends far beyond the area of original release.
The roots of repugnance toward poison weapons are deep. Such weapons were singled out for disdain more than 2,000 years ago in Hindu writings and in Greek and Roman codes of conduct. Roman law provided special punishment to poisoners, including banishment and exposure to wild animals. Biological warfare were the first to be banned entirely by international agreement. In outlawing them, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention describes their use as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."
The taboo against the use of biological agents is not ironclad. But just as individuals who commit murder or incest deserve punishment, so should leaders and nations that traffic in banned weapons face penalties. Hussein demonstrated his unwillingness to abide by moral constraints when he used poison gas against Iran and his own citizens in the 1980s. Allowing him to develop biological or chemical arsenals vastly increases the probability that these weapons will be used again.
Unless the international community insists that Iraqi territory be opened to unfettered inspection, the next use of poison weapons may not be Hussein's fault alone. We all will have been his accomplices.

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