Monday, July 31, 2006


Today the Washington Post ran an article on human-engineered viruses (registration might be required). While I certainly wouldn't want to discount the threat posed by bioweapons, it seems the press at least is prone to viewing threats in a overly compartmentalized fashion. To protect ourselves from bioweapons, we need stockpiled antivirals or other biological countermeasures, or laws to restrict the proliferation of the technology.

What seems to be ignored, though possibly not by the policy-makers, is the fact that the best way to protect ourselves against bioweapons is to prevent them from being used. Non-proliferation is definitely part of this, but one that is ultimately futile. The genie, as the cliche goes, is notoriously difficult to put back in the bottle.

We have at our disposal a considerably more effective deterrent. Consider that some country, let's call it Malignia, decides it wants to support a war of terror against the United States. Malignia manages to develop or acquire a biological weapon. If Malignian-sponsored terrorists sneak this weapon into this country and release it, it could spread very quickly causing millions or tens of millions to become severely ill or die. In response, we could launch a nuclear strike against Malignia that would completely obliterate its population.

The ability to pursue a disproportionate response to any potential attack from a terrorist state automatically gives us a strategic advantage, and is the nature of deterrence. It would be foolish to ignore this deterrent capacity in any consideration of how to prevent biological attacks.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I know you've thought this out in more detail, so let me provoke you to think the thought to conclusion. I'll play devil's advocate:

You pre-suppose absolute and perfect knowledge of Malignia supporting bioterrorism, but that is a rather utopian outlook. I doubt there is a terrorist organization that gets support from only one nation; they are purveyors of a good (terror and suffering) in an open market. The market is also largely anonymous and opaque, making reconstruction of purchase chains a more or less futile effort.

So let's construct a more realistic scenario: Terrorists-R-Us is being bank-rolled by Malignia, Corruptistan, and The United Fiefdoms of Bullshittica. T-R-U gets hold of weaponized plague through unknown channels (of course no nation will openly or even traceably provide this bio-yummy to anyone). They cross the border from Canada, run up to Bill Gates and spray it on him. He sneezes on every Windows XP disk in Redmond, and in the wink of an eye, one tenth of the U.S. is dead of plague.

Now, whose country, cities, citizens, and pots and pans do you turn to glass? Remember the reliability of our government in determining that Saddam Hussein supported the 9/11 hijackers, had weapons of mass destruction, and was generally the spawn of satan. And while we're at it, how does this do much of anything against T-R-U? You might wipe out half of their members, maybe nine tenths, but at the same time you would make every survivor who feels any kinship with them and the nation you glassed hate you with an undying passion. And you've escalated the conflict so that any survivors can legitimately attempt to wipe out the entire U.S. in retaliation for the U.S. having glassed one of the "big three" sponsors.

True, one might argue that this is just an excuse to wipe an otherwise untouchable annoyance off the map, but how would the rest of the world react? Would the rest of the civilized nations of the earth tolerate the "nuke 'em all, let god sort them out" strategy, even if applied to the most despicable of regimes?

And let's not forget that such a regime would likely not be operating with the support of the citizens. After all, if they're vicious enough to release bio-weapons by proxy, why would they bother with letting their people have a say in -- let alone a veto over -- their decisions and actions? Under these circumstances your strategy of deterrence becomes one of collective punishment of innocents, which is pretty much uniformly rejected by the "civilized" nations of the world.

The problem with terrorism is precisely the non-national nature of the actors. Unless you trade the notion of guilt by actions for guilt by (vague) association you cannot justify that response in any ethical framework.

-- Stavros

Mike Marsh said...

We don't need absolute and perfect knowledge. In fact, if we set that as our standard, the deterrent effect is diminished greatly. For terrorist organizations, we want nations to think that we'll assign guilt by association. Malignia, Corruptistan, and UFB would all be viable targets for retaliation. Against which of them we retaliate would depend on the degree with which our intelligence could place the blame. The whole point is to deter support for terrorists in the first place.

The Iraq case is a bit of a straw man. Our leaders knew that Saddam had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks. Bush was just looking for an excuse to invade to settle a personal score. The connection between al Qaeda and the Taliban was well-established.

While it's true that the citizens of whatever country to which we assign blame are likely unwilling and unwitting participants, that's not generally a distinction we make in war. If the government of Malignia decides to launch a nuclear strike against the United States, its citizens will suffer in the retaliation. Ideally, the leaders of any hostile country or terrorist group would gather in a small area, apart from the rest of the population, and paint a large bull's-eye on their roof. Since they're not likely to do that, it's inevitable that at least some civilians will die in a counter-strike. A massive and dispropotionate counter-strike simply increases the stakes for the terrorists. The odds of the terrorist leaders being killed jumps dramatically.

Yes, it's certainly possible that this will lead to an escalation. Any use of weapons of mass destruction (at least by a superpower) is likely to. While many terrorist or hostile-nation leaders would like to see the United States wiped off the map, the leaders themselves never intend to sacrifice their own lives in the process. A leader that unstable and fanatical is not likely to find much meaningful support, since his backers would never know when he might turn on them or place them in an uncomfortable position.

As for world reaction, I'm not sure what the result would be. Nations still interact with one another according to the Law of Nature. That is, the strong can basically do what they like unless the weaker band together to stop them. A major attack by one nation against another justifies a major retaliation. If you were to stab a Hell's Angel, you should expect to have your skull split open, and nobody else should be surprised at this reaction.

Psycho Joe said...

I like the way you think.

People forget that america is one of a very few countries that control more than 95% of the WORLD'S nuclear weapons.

I think it might be time to remind someone.

Think of it this way.
Japan thought america was weak.
We proved them wrong.
What happened?
TERRIBLE things.
Then we paid them a huge amount of money to make a government and a world market.
They did it.
Most Japanese natives (PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN JAPAN) are obsessed with American pop culture.
Because they love us.

Now, don't let me make it sound that easy.
We were lucky in that case.
The other party came around quickly.

That may not be the case every time, but one thing is for sure, they'll only get 1 or 2 times to really foul up, and they're will be nothing left to make a weapon out of.

Much less anyone to make it.

One thing to consider.
5% of the world's radioactive material is unaccounted for.
So, a nuclear strike could be orchestrated anywhere on the planet by ANY terrorist group, thus orchestrating a "Domino Effect" causing nuclear worldwide war.

However, that is basically the ONLY real terrorist threat.

Also, as each year passes, more controls and protocalls are put in place to PREVENT worldwide nuclear war.

Thus the threat diminishes.
Not to say I feel any safer, but the world is slowly becoming a safer place. At least in nuclear terms.

Well, that's my rant.

Psycho Joe said...

One more thing.
I'm marking this page on my favorites.

I intend to say more about this.
What do you think of my speech mike?

Mike Marsh said...

Thanks for the comments, Joe.

It's definitely true that the terrorist threat is overblown. The situation we find ourselves in now is essentially the same as that faced by many Western European countries for several decades.

Were I a foreign citizen, I'd be much more worried about being the victim of American pop culture than American bombs. Vaporization is instantaneous; a Britney Spears earworm lasts a lifetime.

Psycho Joe said...


Also, as an American citizen I'm more afraid of our OWN government than a foreign threat.

The people in our government are all crazy. And I think Bush didn't help that. I personally believe that he invited even more crazy people into the government.

What I mean is, in essense, our American government is unbelievably fierce.

This should be common knowledge, but it's not. This is what confuses me.

You don't hear about terrible terror attacks in Russia.
Cause everyone knows how Russia would respond.

Why is that not true here?
As a country, America has the highest gun murder rate of any country.

Does this not give these fanatics a clue?

That's why I aggree with you.

We need to do something more dramatic than sending our troops to a country so they can die.
We need to hit harder. Because that in the long run will save more lives.

Terrorists are trying to inspire fear in Americans?
That's OUR job.

They should give up now, because democrats don't declare war.
Democrats murder thousands... in secret.

There's more to say here, but, i'm tired.