Bioterrorism threat real

The FBI, with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration, has repeatedly grounded crop-dusting planes since the Sept. 11 attacks. They recognize another threat is imminent and real, and it is much more terrifying than hijacking commercial planes and destroying buildings. It is clear that terrorists are inclined to use unconventional weapons, and perhaps the most devastating and deadly option is the use of biological or chemical agents. The federal government must allocate resources to help the military develop an effective response plan to protect the civilian population since the biochemical warfare threat does not lie in the realm of science fiction, as so many Americans would like to think.

The Sept. 11 attacks prove modern terrorists are ready and willing to take years to plan and perfect their attacks, clearly showing they would spend the time necessary to prepare for a biological or chemical assault. In 1997 the Office of the Surgeon General published a report on the medical aspects of biological and chemical warfare. Concerning foreign and domestic terrorist threats, the report notes that “biological warfare agents are, for the most part, inexpensive and readily obtainable.”

Terrorists have many incentives to consider in choosing biological weapons: ease of production, low cost and the promise of mass casualties. In essence, when compared to nuclear weapons, terrorists get more bang for their buck using biological weapons. Osama bin Laden has reportedly trained operatives to carry out toxic and infectious attacks. Defense officials must take this threat seriously and plan accordingly to ensure Americans’ safety.

Perhaps what makes biological and chemical warfare so frightening is the United States’ lack of a clear defense strategy. Despite foreign cases of harmful biological and chemical terrorist attacks, American federal officials have thus far failed to create effective and successful contingency plans. According to a recent article in The New York Times, officials completely failed to contain a mock smallpox outbreak in a government exercise that ended in chaos. Because it is nearly impossible to outright prevent a biological attack, the military must focus on strengthening containment procedures that prevent the spread of harmful and deadly diseases.

Also, most state and local governments have not yet worked with hospitals and other emergency care providers to address the problems that a large outbreak would cause. Our medical system is not prepared to handle an epidemic-scale biological attack, and we must develop adequate measures for diagnosing and treating infectious weapons. The threat of bioterrorism must be given the highest priority among defense officials. They must be as determined to defeat this form of attack as they are every other act of terrorism.