The lunatic with anthrax

You can aim a Cruise missile at Saddam's headquarters - but not at a lone madman
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The Independent Culture
SINCE IT is the time of year for shopping, and the Internet is the fashionable way to shop, let's see if we can find something suitable for a dictator such as Saddam Hussein. How about a biological bomb? Since March, however, it has become rather harder to buy anthrax over the Net. The American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), now based in Manassas, Virginia, used to let you order items such as freeze-dried botulism and Black Death electronically: all you needed was to have a credit card and an address and to persuade the ATCC that you were a "suitably qualified scientist".

Belatedly, the US government realised that the latter requirement was as easy as forging a prescription; at about the same time, two men were arrested in New York on charges of possessing anthrax. Allegedly, they planned to wreak havoc by letting it loose on the subway or posting a contaminated envelope to Bill Clinton. Anyway, ye olde ATCC Internet gift shoppe for deadly bugs was shut down.

So, no Christmas present for Saddam. Instead, with the raised temperatures over the Iraqi regime's refusal to comply with the UN weapon inspectors, the British Government is pushing for a strengthening of the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. The 150 or so signatories agree not to produce such weapons, except in quantities sufficient to make defences against them.

However, as the Foreign Office points out, it is "really the only major international arms control treaty which doesn't contain any teeth". It proposes a 16-week grind of negotiations, beginning next January in Geneva, designed to put exactly the same teeth into the 1972 Convention as already exist in the Nuclear Weapons and Chemical Weapons Conventions. The intention is to sign a fresh version in 2000 (in London, it is hoped) which will give the ageing treaty some fresh dentures.

However, while such aims are, of course, laudable, they really just hit the easy targets. The threat these days from biological warfare does not really come from governments but from individuals.

Consider this: why would a government want to use a biological weapon during a war? The military does not have any enduring affection for biological warfare. Any enthusiasm quickly wears off when scientists explain the associated problems. Biological weapons are difficult to target accurately, slow to act and can linger in exactly the territory you wish to conquer. It's like sowing landmines ahead of you.

That has not stopped them being used from time to time throughout history. As was noted in this paper on Tuesday, a favourite ruse of the Tartars in the 14th century was to catapult plague victims' bodies over besieged city walls. However, the lack of understanding of quite how bacteria and viruses spread and multiply meant that biological warfare had to wait until the 20th century for the technology to arrive that could control it.

Even then, scientists kept discovering that biowar was a sort of technological Golem, a beast that would not do their bidding. Anthrax, so carefully tested on the Scottish island of Gruinard during the last war, contaminated the soil for 44 years; it was only considered "clear" after two years' work injecting formaldehyde into the ground to kill the spores.

Those problems with biological weapons mirror the fears that some of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb had - that detonating the first bomb would trigger a chain reaction that would set the entire atmosphere alight and kill the world at a stroke. But because bombs, even atomic ones, are inert, they were able to calculate the dangers involved; eventually they decided that the cataclysm would not happen. The same is not true for biological weapons. If you dropped anthrax on Saddam Hussein, it might kill him; but it would also spread throughout Baghdad and linger long after his regime had died. The Iraqi citizens would be in the same position as the sheep that were the unwitting test subjects of the Gruinard experiments all those years ago.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the military can't use biological weapons. Instead of deploying them, they talk about them. Propaganda is cheaper.

Take one of the most popular "urban myth" forms of biological weapon: the "ethnic bomb". Earlier this month The Sunday Times solemnly declared that "Israel is working on a biological weapon that would harm Arabs but not Jews, according to Israeli military and intelligence sources. The weapon... is seen as Israel's response to Iraq's threat of chemical and biological attacks".

The article went on to say that "Israeli scientists are trying to... [identify] genes carried by some Arabs, then create a genetically-modified bacterium or virus". To some, that tale may have rung a bell: in June, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was told by one of the apartheid regime's scientists, Jan Lourens, of the former regime's search for a bacterium that would sterilise blacks without affecting whites.

Let's get the "ethno-bomb" into perspective. Bacteria and viruses survive best by infecting anyone they come across; so they certainly aren't race- specific. The genes that lead to the physical differences that we perceive as "race" are so tightly interwoven with everything else that makes us human that identifying them in the first place is still a pipedream. The Human Genome Project, which aims to unravel the genetic blueprint of humanity, does not expect to finish decoding the 100,000-odd genes of human DNA until sometime in the next millennium. The whole nature of genetics would not allow an "ethno-bomb", requiring as it does the picking of particular genes and then the tailoring of a bug that somehow latches on to those. Furthermore, Jews and Arabs share a closer common genetic heritage than many other races. Those Israeli scientists have struck it lucky; they are on a wild goose chase but are carried on a gravy train. So any reasonable government would not actually use biological weapons. Apart from making them the pariah of the world, it would have an unpredictable outcome: all you need is to capture a few infected prisoners and you have brought the trouble back to your own doorstep.

Considerations like those do not trouble lunatics, however, and those are the people who really pose a threat. Bear in mind that, after Iraq's gassing of its own Kurdish people, the biggest casualty list from chemical or biological warfare in the past decade comes from individuals - particularly the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect, which released home-made Sarin nerve gas on the Japanese underground in March 1995, killing 11 people and injuring 5,500. You can get the basic ingredients (such as growth medium and potentially dangerous bacteria) for biological weapons at most universities. One of the men arrested in the US with anthrax was entitled - in a professional sense - to have it. The question is: what was he going to do with it?

The Foreign Office says that a revised biological weapons convention won't cover individuals: "One would expect most countries would have their own controls and legislation to stop rogue individuals," said a spokesman. "But, yes, the treaties are only binding on states and governments. It's more difficult to tackle... individuals."

In this increasingly atomised world, though, it's individuals we need to worry about, not the governments whose hands are so tied by threats of sanctions and reprisal. You can aim a Cruise missile at Saddam's headquarters but not at a lone madman. Bearing in mind what happened when the Animal Liberation Front freed farmed mink earlier this year (the animals began wiping out local species), what we should really worry about is the rise of the Germ Liberation Front.