War is peace. Now we know.
It's only going to get worse.
The Metaphysical Club
U.N. diplomats give Bush a blank check.
Next Stop, Southeast Asia?
The United States may have a new target.
Nation building vs. globalization.
Anthrax is bad, but smallpox is worse much worse.
At the Gates of Power.
I cannot find the glory in this day.
Patriots and scoundrels.
Israel's Labor Party is silenced as violence erupts.
Bush administration hawks want to deploy "mini-nukes" against Osama bin Laden.
Under cover of war, the Bush administration pushes for fast track.
Green takes the runoff amid charges of race-baiting and miscounted votes.
Ecuadorian Indians fight Texaco with U.S. tort law.
Suffering in solitary confinement.
ART: William Kentridge's animated politics.
BOOKS: The story of Arming America.
October 26, 2001
Bioterror, Then and Now
Anthrax is bad, but smallpox is worse much worse.
I live in Tallahassee, Florida, not far from the state Supreme Court Building.
During last years election fiasco, it was surrounded by TV satellite hook-ups
and reporters doing live broadcasts, and we in Tallahassee took to calling it
ground zero. I drove my two young daughters by so they could see
a piece of history.
September 11 left us all with a new ground zero. But events were not done with
Florida. Soon after the attacks in New York and Washington, the FBI established
a Florida connection. With its flight schools and its anonymous, everybodys-from-somewhere-else
apartment complexes, our state was found to be the staging area. And now, a
few weeks later, Robert Stevens is dead, seven other people in Boca Raton have
tested positive for anthrax, and were all starting to realize that from
now on ground zero might be anywhere. Everyone is skittish. Hourly, it seems,
we have to decide again whether were being cautious or alarmist. Should
we fly or not? What do we say to our kids? What should we believe? What should
I fear smallpox. Im not too keen on flying, and anthrax has everybody
worried right now, but its smallpox that really scares me.
Anthrax is awful, but smallpox is worse. Unlike anthrax, its contagious,
very contagious. It spreads like wildfire, says Peter Katona, a
consultant to Los Angeles on bioterrorism and assistant professor of medicine
at UCLA. There are cases where people were walking down the street a hundred
yards away, outside a building, and they got it.
Its also deadly. Smallpox has killed more people than any other disease
in history, including bubonic plague. At least 300 million people died of smallpox
in the 20th century alone. Even with modern medical care, smallpox kills about
a third of the unvaccinated people it strikes. There are no mild cases. Survivors
are left scarred, and sometimes blind or with deformed bones. But one of the
great victories of 20th century science was the eradication of smallpox. The
last known case occurred in 1978. The hitch is that once the disease was wiped
out, routine vaccinations stopped. Virtually no one has been vaccinated in the
United States since 1972, and most of us who were vaccinated back in the 60s
could now contract the disease because immunity does not persist permanently.
Its estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population has residual
immunity. In June 1999, experts meeting at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention in Atlanta unanimously agreed that, followed by anthrax, smallpox
was the greatest bioterrorist threat to the United States.
It is some comfort that Secretary Tommy Thompson recently named Dr. D.A. Henderson
to chair the Health and Human Services advisory council on bioterrorism. Henderson
is the Johns Hopkins researcher who led the World Health Organizations
successful campaign to eradicate smallpox, and no one understands smallpox better
than he does. For many years, he has been writing about the real and immediate
dangers posed by bioterrorism. He has argued for the stockpiling of drugs and
vaccines, the training and mobilization of health workers, the education of
the public, and the need to build an international consensus against the use
of biological weapons. We are ill-prepared to deal with a terrorist attack
that employs biological weapons, Henderson declared in a 1998 article
in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The specter of biological
weapons use is an ugly one, every bit as grim and foreboding as that of a nuclear
Regarding smallpox specifically, Henderson warned: If some modest volume
of virus were to be released (perhaps by exploding a light bulb containing virus
in a Washington subway), the event would go unnoticed until the first cases
with rash began to appear 9 or 10 days later. Because hardly any doctors
have ever seen smallpox, and so few laboratories can test for it, several more
days might go by before the first diagnosis was made. If only 100 people were
originally infected, Henderson wrote, tens of thousands, including many unsuspecting
hospital personnel, could have been exposed by the time the epidemic was identified.
Hospital isolation wards and our national stores of vaccine would at that point
be sorely tested.
This scenario had me quaking, and yet there was a sentence in his article that
seemed to contain an oversight that set me thinking down some new and troubling
channels. Reminding us that his Washington subway scenario was still speculative,
Henderson emphasized that neither smallpox, anthrax nor the plague has
so far effectively been deployed as a biological weapon, and thus no real world
events exist to provide likely scenarios.
First of all, I thought about the recent anthrax outbreaks and was somewhat
comforted. The attacks, while deadly, so far have been pretty limited in scope.
But then my mind turned again to smallpox, and I recalled the effects of smallpox
on Americas native population during the first centuries of European settlement.
I thought about Fort Pitt, Lord Jeffrey Amherst and the tribes of the Ohio River
In the early 1760s, immediately following the French and Indian War, Ottawa
Chief Pontiac pulled together a coalition of tribes intent on driving the British
from the Great Lakes region. Angered by the British refusal to distribute (as
the French had) gun powder and ammunition for hunting, and by the British plan
to seize Indian lands, Pontiacs warriors began to attack British troops
and settlers in the spring of 1763.
At about the same time, smallpox broke out among the soldiers and civilians
inside Fort Pitt, the site of present-day Pittsburgh. During May and June, nine
forts fell to the Indians, leaving only Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt in British
hands. On June 24, a small delegation of Delaware Indians brought news of the
British losses to Fort Pitt and advised Simeon Ecuyer, captain of the fort,
to surrender. Having already been notified by a messenger from Fort Detroit
that Col. Henry Bouquet was on his way with reinforcements, Ecuyer attempted
to buy time by putting the Delaware off. He sent them away with two Blankets
and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital.
His ruse apparently worked. For the next year, smallpox, resulting at least
in part from these gifts, spread down the Ohio, devastating Mingo,
Delaware, Wyandot and Shawnee villages. Eventually the epidemics traveled down
the Mississippi, affecting Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians in what is now
Mississippi and Alabama as well as some native people in the American Southwest.
Ecuyer and others at Fort Pitt apparently hatched the smallpox plan on their
own, but the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, Lord Jeffrey
Amherst, certainly would have approved. He was corresponding with Bouquet at
the same time, asking Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox
among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every
stratagem in our power to reduce them. We must, he wrote, put a
most Effectual Stop to their very being. Amhersts directives apparently
arrived at Fort Pitt with Bouquet after the fact, but his paper trail and his
rhetoric have linked him historically to this act of bioterrorism.
The European settlement of America offers a real-world scenario of what smallpox
can do to an unprotected population. Measles, cholera, influenza, cannons and
repeating rifles all played a role in the conquering of America, but none of
them was more devastating than smallpox. Smallpox epidemics often killed as
much as half of the affected Indian population. Sometimes it was worse. Epidemics,
quite likely of smallpox, reduced the population of the Winnebago in Wisconsin
from about 20,000 to 600 between 1634 and 1670. A smallpox epidemic from 1781
to 1783 is said to have killed as many as 3,000 of the 5,000 Ojibwa south of
Lake Superior. In the winter of 1837-1838, a steamboat passenger with smallpox
took the disease up the Missouri River. The resulting epidemic killed about
17,000 Plains Indians.
Of course, these numbers only bolster Hendersons arguments and should
lead us all to demand a more effective defense against bioterrorism. As Henderson
has said, we must improve our intelligence about who might possess the smallpox
virus. Supposedly samples of it are stored only in the Centers for Disease Control
in Atlanta and a like facility in Russia. But that facility, in Novosibirsk,
is no longer considered secure. Henderson says a colleague who visited in the
autumn of 1997 found it half-empty and protected by a handful of guards
who had not been paid in months. U.S. intelligence suspects that the Russians,
North Koreans and Iraqis have hidden the virus for military use. Iran, Iraq,
Pakistan and Osama bin Ladens al-Qaeda network have all tried to obtain
Intelligence is important, Henderson says, but because prevention is so difficult
and detection or interdiction of those intending to use biological weapons
is next to impossible, medical workers in emergency rooms and specialists
in infectious diseases ... constitute the first line of defense. These
medical personnel need more training to help them diagnose smallpox, more beds
and better staffing to treat the sick, more labs equipped to confirm their diagnoses
and, especially, available vaccine to help contain an epidemic.
In 1972 a relatively mild outbreak in Yugoslavia prompted that country to seal
its borders and vaccinate 20 million people. The United States has only about
15 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand. Secretary Thompson is currently
seeking funding to get 300 million new doses, but they wouldnt be available
before the end of next year at the earliest.
The implications of these numbers, and of Hendersons warnings, are staggering,
as is the history of the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans. And
yet I am compelled to return to the Fort Pitt example and examine it from a
political as well as a scientific standpoint. I believe we also need to look
at Lord Jeffrey Amhersts attitudes and his rhetoric if we are to learn
all the lessons we should from Fort Pitt.
At first, we might be tempted to see Amherst only as a kind of 18th century
Osama bin Laden (with Captain Ecuyer perhaps as his Mohammed Atta). Lord Jeffrey
sat safely in New York, trying to avoid culpability while doing the strategic
planning and ideological work of his holy war. Total Extirpation,
he said, was scarce Attonement for the Bloody and Inhuman deeds
of the Indians. His language is dehumanizing, genocidal and lit with religious
fervor. It is the language of a terrorist.
But Amherst was a British soldier, a white settler in America, and we cannot
in good conscience completely separate ourselves from his words or Captain Ecuyers
deeds. U.S. troops, in fact, apparently emulated Fort Pitts example by
providing their own infected blankets to Plains Indians during the 19th century.
We cannot deny that our history includes the bioterrorism and genocide these
men practiced in the name of Manifest Destiny.
But some have tried. Amherst College, for instance, claims on its Web site
that its the town of Amherst, not the college, that is named for
the British general and that Amherst College was named in honor
of the town. But until the 1970s, Amherst Colleges official china
depicted a mounted Englishman with a sword chasing Indians on foot, and the
schools fight song still opens with the lines: Oh, Lord Jeffrey
Amherst was a soldier of the king / And he came from across the sea / To the
Frenchmen and the Indians he didnt do a thing.
Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president and former chairwoman of the National
Endowment for the Humanities, said recently that in the present climate we must
emphasize American history, not multiculturalism. To say that it is more
important now [to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge and awareness of other
cultures], she explained, implies that the events of September 11
were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many
deaths and so much destruction.
This kind of thinking is exactly what leads us to read our own history selectively
and blindly. It leads us to think we have all the answers, to believe that none
of the complaints of a terrorist could ever be valid, to assert that we are
protecting democracy and not oil when we prop up royal families and repressive
regimes in the Middle East. And it leads us into our own distinctly American
version of Lord Jeffreys and bin Ladens dehumanizing rhetoric, a
rhetoric that puts God on the side of the cowboys who will smoke them
out of their holes and bring em back dead or alive.
in the English Department at Florida State University. He is working on a book
about his 10 years as a trade union organizer in a Boston hospital.