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September 26, 2002

Gregg Easterbrook, in an otherwise interesting New Republic article about how biological and chemical weapons are overrated as “weapons of mass destruction,” can’t resist offering futher proof of William Jefferson Clinton’s well-known intellectual laxity:
Richard Preston’s sci-fi thriller The Cobra Event depicted a biological weapon capable of killing everyone in New York City in 24 hours. Since Preston had previously written a more-or-less nonfiction best-seller, The Hot Zone, which claimed Ebola could kill millions unstoppably, his Cobra Event was said to have deeply disturbed President Clinton—even though it was a sci-fi novel.
Italics, needless to say, The New Republic’s.

Evidently, it’s not necessary to argue that The Cobra Event was intellectually or aesthetically flawed. It was a sci-fi novel. That’s all you need to know. [10:06 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Gregg Easterbrook, in:

John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 10:29 PM:

It has been claimed (though I do not know how accurately) that the creation of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was influenced by Michael Crichton's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, a you-know-what novel of quite spectacular lack of scientific (or literary) merit but very large sales.

The LRL, for those not there at the time, was designed to isolate us from any nasty microrganisms brought back by Apollo missions from the Moon. The few biologists that commented pointed out that nothing whatsoever had been done to isolate the Moon from Terrestrial contamination, a far likelier prospect.

To be fair, this was at a moment when Americans had been abruptly made aware of our CBW programs, which led to a brief ripple of nervousness about biological disaster (and, following ANDROMEDA's success, a number of biocrisis novels and movies).

But hey, Nixon, now -there- was an incisive scientific thinker for you.

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 09:50 AM:

Tell Jerry Pournelle. (I'm thinking of the team of SF writers in FOOTFALL.) It's one of those examples of you being on their side but them not being on your side.

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 12:09 PM:

Well, see also http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.10/start.html?pg=5

Let's see now -- The Cobra Event was a decent novel. The SF elements in it made it possible for the good guys to win. (The on-the-fly air sniffers and bio-hazard detectors.)

The plot: Solitary would-be mass murderer, using parts you find at home, builds bioweapon. Heroic ex-arms-inspector foils him, more due to the bad guy's bad luck than our hero's astuteness. Bioweapon gets out anyway.

He's come up with a fun disease, one which I think has more to do with not giving workshop instructions than strict plausibility.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 01:38 PM:

I'm going to have to write about Easterbrook's piece, because the rest of it is as idiotic, baseless, and foolish as the single comment you single out, Patrick. In short, yes, chemical and biological weapons have tactical shortcomings, as do, in fact, bullets, bombs, and mines, but they have managed to cripple for life millions of people, and kill tens of thousands outright, and to claim that one shouldn't be alarmed at their potential future use is as correct and insightful as claiming that one shouldn't be alarmed by bombs and artillery, because, after all, they have a limited ability to kill soldiers. It's perfectly true and perfectly idiotic.

But I've now read several bloggers unfamiliar with the facts taking Easterbrook's piece seriously, so I'll try to comment a bit more carefully RSN.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 01:57 PM:

Yes, I've noticed you overreacting to the Easterbook piece elsewhere, just as you do here.

Perhaps we read different articles. The one I read didn't claim that we shouldn't worry about biological or chemical weapons. It pointed out that, by and large, they haven't been anywhere near as efficient at quickly killing large numbers of people as nuclear weapons are.

You say "Yes, chemical and biological weapons have tactical shortcomings," and then go on to impute that Easterbrook is "claiming that one shouldn't be alarmed." Well, this is just plain wrong. In fact, Easterbrook's piece was about how chemical and biological weapons have -- guess what -- "tactical shortcomings." Where he goes on to say we "shouldn't be alarmed" is invisible to me. His point wasn't that chemical and biological weapons are harmless; his point is that nuclear weapons are several orders of magnitude more dangerous, and that when we debate about "weapons of mass destruction" as if atomic bombs and anthrax were the same thing, we don't help ourselves come to sensible conclusions.

Since Easterbrook is basically an Iraq hawk anyway, it's puzzling to me why you're getting so hot and bothered about this. Are you suggesting that Easterbrook is engaged in some sinister ploy to reassure people that Iraq is harmless? Or what? It is all a little puzzling.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 05:42 AM:

"It pointed out that, by and large, they haven't been anywhere near as efficient at quickly killing large numbers of people as nuclear weapons are."

Well, yes, what else could kill hundreds of thousands of people in an instant? I wasn't aware that this was even remotely a point anyone needed clarifying.

But, as I pointed out in comments to the estimable Matthew Yglesias, influenza killed more people in 1918 than everyone killed in WWI. Without the aid of a single human being. Without any genetic engineering. Without any refining.

No one has ever said biowarfare could kill even tens of thousands of people in an instant. Or a day. That's not the question.

The question is: could biowarfare kill tens, or hundreds, of thousands of people, in a month, or a few months? And the answer is: yes, yes, yes.

Why this is reassuring, I do not understand. What comfort, of any sort, or what information of any value, was in Easterbrook's piece, I'm utterly failing to get. That's why I'm completely puzzled at people citing it as "interesting" and "worthwhile." What did you learn from it you didn't know before? (This is a straightforward sincere question.)

What Easterbrook said wasn't true. From his piece: "Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not 'weapons of mass destruction' in any meaningful sense." False. They can, and have, killed hundreds of people at a time. That's "mass" enough for me. Drop ten missiles loaded with the right gas, at the right time and place, and you can kill thousands. That's mass enough for me. Let alone twenty or thirty missiles, or more.

"Similarly, biological weapons are widely viewed with dread, though in actual use they have rarely done great harm." This is a dishonest side-step. It's like declaring in July, 1945, that not a single human being has been killed by a nuclear weapon, so obviously they are not a weapon of mass destruction. I've already dealt, briefly, with why this is an irrelevant point above, and I'll deal below with what it's also false. I'd like to presume Easterbrook isn't deliberately underplaying/lying, but I don't understand why he's making such an irrelevant, and misleading, point that adds up to an (deliberate or not) untruth from one angle, and is outright false from another.

"Japanese attempts to use biological weapons against China during World War II were of limited success."

Cite: "Before making their escape at the time of Japanese surrender, Japanese in Unit 731 set free scores of thousands of infected rats that caused widespread plague in 22 counties of Heilungchiang and Kirin provinces that took more than 20,000 Chinese lives." Either 20,000 people are "a limited success" and not "mass," or Easterbrook is telling a monstrous lie, whether deliberately or somehow ignorantly.

Note: Here is a statement that "Sheldon Harris, a historian at California State University, in Northridge, estimates that more than 200,000 Chinese were killed in germ warfare field experiments. Hams - author of a book on Unit 731, 'Factories of Death' also says that plague-infected animals were released as the war was ending and caused outbreaks of the plague that killed at least 30,000 people in the Harbin area from 1946 through 1948." But I'm less sure of this.

I react strongly ("overreact") when people tell monstrous lies, and people I respect believe them. It frightens me.

John ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 11:36 AM:

Can't conventional weapons kill hundreds or even thousands of people at a time? Easterbrook isn't talking about if chemical weapons are dangerous, but if they're particularly more dangerous than conventional weapons, and it seems as though the answer is almost surely no. Your statistics from WWI don't prove anything, since they don't give us any means of comparison. So 91,000 people got killed by gas in WWI. tens of millions were killed by conventional weapons. In what way are chemical weapons quantitatively more "destructive" than conventional weapons? You provide some horrible anecdotal descriptions of how chemical weapons kill you, but the fact that death is painful doesn't prove that it's inherently more destructive than, say, mortar shells. By your definition, large artillery and bombs and conventional missiles should probably also be called "weapons of mass destruction" Why is it worse to poison someone with gas than it is to blow them apart with artillery, or to get them to burn alive with incendiary weapons, neither of which are ever called "weapons of mass destruction"?

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 12:27 PM:

John: I think you've asked exactly the right question.

Aum Shinri Kyo agents used sarin, one of the deadliest nerve toxins, in pretty much the perfect conditions for gas warfare--a lot of people gather together very closely with no place to escape. They only managed to kill around ten people. Three years earlier, Colin Ferguson, acting alone, used small arms to kill four people on a rush-hour train in New York. If the Aum agents had had rifles, they would have killed more people in less time.

Biological agents aren't, historically, very effective tools of actual warfare, but they're good tools of terror. If your goal is indiscriminate death and chaos with minimal outlay of effort, they can get the job done, but they won't kill as many people as soldiers armed with rifles will.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2002, 03:09 PM:

The fairly recent book "Germs", about bio warfare, has a chapter on Clinton's involvement. Besides reading the sci-fi novel just mentioned, Clinton also read the relevant issue of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical accociation) and had extensive discussions with at least one Biology Nobel laureate. Don't have the book at hand to say more.

Seems like a good time to plug my piece, "Who are the real traitors?" The NR has done the Dems a tremendous amount of harm with this kind of stuff. And they gave us Kaus, Kelly, Sullivan , and God knows who else.


Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2002, 12:24 AM:

I'm with Gary on this one. It's not just a yuck-factor, although that counts too. But bio or chemical weapons have a number of "practical" advantages over bullets or bombs, chief among which is that it is much easier to conceal who used them on you. Others, depending on the agent, can include: self-replication; large area denial-or-great cleanup cost per cheap unit of weapon.

I think that Easterbrook and others who argue similarly focus too much on battlefield use, where there are obviously quicker ways to do your killing. But for behind-the-lines, terror type work, bio and chemical weapons are ideal. The fact that some attacks have failed is about as comforting as the fact that the first WTC attack failed to bring down the towers.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2002, 08:33 AM:

Some good points on both sides here. I continue to think that in pointing out that chem and bio weapons have (so far) less military effectiveness or destructive potential than nuclear warheads, Easterbrook is saying something true and real.

I don't think this observation amounts to an argument for or against war on Iraq, or for or against the morality of American foreign policy, or an argument that we don't need to be worried about chemical and biological weapons, for goodness' sake.

Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2002, 11:45 AM:

I think the whole "weapons of mass destruction" argument is badly warped by past US policy.

Briefly, decisions by the US government (and other nations) leave them with nothing between the nuclear and the conventional. Our countries, and our armies, may be very well informed on how to deal with chemical and biological weapons, but there is no equivalent deterrent.

So, by classing them all as "weapons of mass destruction", we can claim an excuse to use a nuke if an enemy uses gas or disease.

Hopefully, people who know something about the subject can firmly sit on the head of a politician who is ready to toss nukes at somebody who uses the less effective weapons -- I don't think gas attack is quite the killer that some think, but we may have been lucky about the terrorist incidents.

As for biological warfare, that could be enough to justify a nuclear response. It has the potential to go out of control.

Incidentally, the BBC has reported that North Korea has developed a new oilseed rape (canola) variety, better suited to their climate. Good for them, but I have the uneasy question: how did they do it? Was it conventional plant breeding, or are they GM capable?

You want to scare folks -- biowar by a GM-capable country....

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2002, 02:14 PM:


"Nothing between the nuclear and the conventional"? The reason there's nothing "between" nuclear and conventional is because those aren't points on a spectrum. A weapon is either nuclear or it isn't; the smallest nuclear weapons are less destructive than the largest conventional weapons.

The term "conventional weapons" spans the range from .22 pistols up to daisy-cutter Fuel/Air Mixture bombs and cruise missles.

It would be a bad idea to respond to a chemical weapons terror attack with a chemical weapon military attack because chemical weapons are poor military weapons. It would be a bad idea to respond to a biological weapons attack with a biological military attack because biological agents are terrible military weapons.

We can level [insert name of city here] using conventional weapons with only slightly more effort than a nuclear weapon would take. There's no reason to assume that we need strategic or even tactical nukes for retaliation against any enemy of the US in any scenario which doesn't involve the Russian nuclear fleet.

(There are uses for nuclear weapons which conventional weapons can't provide, but they're pretty esoteric--if we wanted to EMP an enemy city, there's no substitute for an air-burst nuke. Or if we want a commando to destroy a dam. But those aren't likely scenarios in the type of war the US is likely to be fighting soon.)