Blogs > Liberty and Power > Going All Wobbly

May 6, 2004 12:33 pm

Going All Wobbly

Andrew Sullivan writes:

BE AFRAID: Bio-chemical warfare from Islamist terrorists is, to my mind, inevitable.

and links this article from the Washington Post.

The article, about a sad-sack jihadi living with his Mom in France, and cooking up castor-bean poison in a coffee maker, is a good deal more pathetic than frightening:

Benchellali's mother, Hafsa, told police she became concerned after finding strange potions and liquids scattered around her sewing room following one of her son's all-night sessions. But when she confronted her son, he warned her to stay away."He said it was dangerous," the woman said, according to the transcript,"and it was better if I didn't know what he was doing."

Mommm! I'm busy!!

Why is a smart guy like Sullivan buying into the sensationalistic and stupid notion that chem/bio agents are supervillain weapons that can"bring a day of horror like none we have ever known," to quote Bush? Such uncritical thinking is one reason we're subjected to the indignity of having the leader of the most powerful country in history whining at press conferences about Iraqi mustard gas shells.

Well,"be afraid" about this if you want to. I worry more about car bombs and other, conventional means of mayhem.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

There's only "little" evidence because they haven't succeeded yet. There will be "lots" of evidence once they do. Aum Shinrykyo may have failed to weaponize anthrax--but obviously, success is possible. That's what happened in 2001. Weaponized anthrax killed just a few people in 2001, but a simultaneous mass mailing could have killed many more (and caused incredible panic). The attacks could have been a rehearsal for something else. "Could haves" are capacities for action, and they are part of the evidence that has to be considered.

It makes no sense to think of terrorism exclusively in terms of past manifestations of it. Nobody had been killed by jetliners flying through skyscrapers before 9/11. Taking the figure of 0 such deaths as a baseline, you might have said in 2000 that no such attacks were "in the big picture." Thinking this way is a recipe for being taken by surprise.

Incidentally, Matt, contrary to popular belief, it is not a settled fact that the 9/11 attacks were accomplished by boxcutters, or by boxcutters alone. Take a look at the website of Edward Jay Epstein, who rebuts that factoid quite effectively. And if the rubric of "WMD" is deceitful, so is that of "conventional weapon." The idea of a "conventional" weapon presupposes "unconventional" ones, and the unconventional ones turn out to be...WMDs. That line of reasoning isn't going to get you anywhere.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

So are you saying we shouldn't be worried about, say, weaponized anthrax in the mail?

I don't quite see why a fear of "conventional means of mayhem" should be incompatible with a fear of non-conventional ones. And I don't see how the guy's being "pathetic" makes him any less of a threat.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To Gene:

I don't think that answers the question at all. I wasn't asking whether anthrax was more dangerous than conventional weapons. I was asking whether we should be worried about anthrax at all.

Are you really saying we shouldn't be worried? Isn't that what encouraged the anthrax killers in the fall of 2001? Consider the fact that the anthrax attacks of 2001 haven't been solved, there is unaccounted-for anthrax out there, and if you can get your hands on anthrax, it is ridiculously easy to send through the mail. I don't really see why that is supposed to be a cause for complacency simply because we can ALSO be blown up by conventional means.

To say that we aren't at risk from BW/CW weapons is to put your head in the sand. Al Qaeda has expressed a wish to use them for mass killing, and has in the past tried to develop them. You seem to be banking on the hypothesis that they're either (a) not serious, (b) will inevitably fail, or (c) can't acquire the weapons. None of those is true, and the fact that they can also use conventional weapons doesn't change any part of the equation.

I don't see any hysteria on the part of the newspaper. If the guy is connected with Al Qaeda, it's news--whether his arsenal consists of ricin, C4 or a stockpile of bows and arrows.

To Matt:
You don't have to conflate nuclear weapons with mustard gas to think that BW/CW are worth taking seriously.

Matt Barganier - 5/7/2004

Jesus Christ, I think it's OK to put nuclear weapons in a class of their own, what with their unique capacities for devastation at the time of and long after their use. Don't be pedantic. It's stupid to throw mustard gas and even ricin under the same big tent and use them as an excuse for preemption.

By the way, are you saying that the 9/11 hijackings were accomplished through the use of so-called WMD? If not, what's the point of your quibble?

Gene Healy - 5/7/2004

Anthrax killed 5 people in 2001. When Aum Shinrikyo (with over a billion dollars and some highly competent scientists on their payroll) tried to weaponize anthrax, they weren't able to kill anyone. They did kill a dozen people on the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas. (Which I believe is the largest death toll any terrorist group has ever managed with unconventional weapons.) Compare that to 200 dead in Madrid with conventional explosives.

We should be very worried about the (growing) number of Islamists who want to kill Americans. But there is very little evidence that suggests that chem/bio is a particularly effective means of killing large numbers of people, when compared to more conventional means. In the big picture, worrying about ricin is asinine.

Matt Barganier - 5/6/2004

Take 'em seriously if you want. Again, Gene asked why we should take them more seriously than car bombs or, ahem, boxcutters. My additional point was that the whole rubric of WMD is deceitful.

Matt Barganier - 5/6/2004

Bravo, Gene, for saying what we should all be saying: the very term "WMD" is a deceitful effort to conflate archaic, nearly useless stuff like mustard gas and nuclear weapons.

Gene Healy - 5/6/2004


The notion that VX, anthrax, etc. are more dangerous than, say, high explosives is one of the reasons the Bush administration was able to successfully pitch the war on Iraq as a national security matter. A terrorist with homemade ricin in cold-cream jars is no more dangerous than a terrorist with a gun. Putting the story on the front page of the Washington Post reflects unwarranted hysteria.