An Offensive Against Bioterrorism

October 4, 2001 Page: A18 Section: Letters

Our nation's current vulnerability to bioterrorism has implications beyond simply accelerating public health measures at home. No impregnable, purely vaccine- and drug-based bioterrorist shield is possible any more than an impregnable star wars missile defense.

Just as the latter needs to be supplemented with diplomatic and military measures designed to prevent or if necessary to overthrow dictatorships manufacturing nuclear devices for terrorist export, so we need to prioritize our diplomatic and military efforts to stop or, if necessary, to eliminate those regimes intent on manufacturing bioterrorist weapons of mass destruction for terrorist use.

Most urgently this means conducting the public debate as to whether to target Saddam Hussein's Baath party regime in Iraq in terms which do not follow the cold war liberal (hands off) versus conservative (intervene) divide. For this debate to result in a rational policy decision valid intelligence is needed as to his current and projected bioterrorist weapon capability. We also must avoid being blinded by wishful thinking or modeling the current conflict based upon our most recent one, the long Cold War with the Soviet Union where we can be seen as having won "by waiting them out" under the umbrella of mutually assured destruction. In the current instance, time may not be on our side. MAD doesn't work with either religious (the Taliban) or secular (Hussein's Baath party) cults. The argument that we will only be targets of bioterrorism by way of retaliation has never held true as far as Hussein's modus operandi. He, as the Nazi cult in its genocidal program against the Jews during the Shoah, has committed mass murder whenever he can get away with it.

While delay in offensive action may be helpful in boosting our domestic bioterrorism defense and response capabilities, if the history of weapons development is any guide, it is even more likely to work to the advantage of bioterrorist-cultivating regimes by allowing more time for the manufacture and dispersal of ever more potent bioterrorist weapons.

Harold J. Bursztajn, MD
Associate clinical professor of psychiatry
Harvard Medical School