Ira Chernus  


Just when you thought it was safe to go outside New From the people who brought you "Nuclear Weapons," "Chemical Weapons," and "Other Weapons of Mass Destruction" It's: "The Return of Biological Weapons." You thought they were gone. You thought the U.S. had signed a treaty banning biological weapons. Well, you were right. But now, they are back.

The U.S. did sign a treaty, over thirty years ago, banning the use of bacteria, viruses, or any other kinds of pathogens in warfare. It was accepted all over the world. But it had two loopholes, each one big enough for your favorite general to drive his favorite tank through.

Loophole Number One: The treaty banned research and production of offensive biological weapons. But it did not forbid defense. It is perfectly legal to develop antibodies to fight off anthrax, plague, and all the other germs of warfare. Well, the Pentagon wizards asked, what about the germs that some nasty enemy might invent tomorrow? Isn't it our responsibility to defend our boys and girls against those too? Seems innocent enough, and permitted by the treaty.

So the Pentagon hired brilliant U.S. scientists to find new bio-weapons that might some day be used against us. They are busy today developing new weapons of mass destruction. And it is all perfectly legal because, hey, we do not intend to use these weapons in warfare. After all, we are America. Would we ever do such a dastardly thing? Of course not. We only want to use them in the lab, to figure out defenses against them.

Naturally, this is all top secret. There is no way to know for sure what goes on in those labs. But it is a safe bet that the U.S. has the most technically advanced bio-weapons research program in the world.

Loophole Number Two: The treaty that banned biological weapons has no enforcement mechanism. About six years ago, some nations started to write a new agreement (called a protocol) on enforcement measures. Now a draft of the protocol is ready. It includes provisions for inspecting suspicious chemical and pharmaceutical plants that might be producing banned materials.

According to the New York Times, the Bush administration does not like it. A high level administration committee has recommended that the president reject it. Mr. Bush (or his designated reader) is almost certain to accept their view and send the whole process back to the drawing board.

The official explanation is that the protocol is not tough enough to catch all cheaters. Those nasty enemies are so sneaky, they could find a way to evade detection. This is the same excuse that U.S. officials gave in the early cold war years for rejecting nuclear weapons controls.

The problem is that suspicion of the enemies is not a conclusion based on evidence or experience. It is like an axiom in a geometry proof. It is the starting point of the argument. So it can never be challenged or changed. Once you decide in advance that the "bad guys" can't be trusted, there is nothing the "bad guys" can ever do to prove themselves trustworthy.

At the same time, the administration also complains that the inspection proposals are too strict. Neither the Pentagon nor the private corporations involved in this industry want their facilities open to inspection. They are afraid that trade secrets might be revealed.

Biological weapons are a big business. These folks aim to protect their business. And it will probably get bigger in the future. If Bush rejects this protocol, it may be hard to get other nations to keep working at it, trying to satisfy a recalcitrant U.S. government. The whole ban on bio-weapons is in jeopardy.

But there is more going on here than the greed of the chemical and pharmaceutical corporations. The Bush administration is scuttling all sorts of treaties: the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gases, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the ban on weapons in space. The basic message to the world is: "We are Americans. We do what we damn well please." We are fast become the biggest, baddest outlaw of the international community.

Other nations are pressing the U.S. to agree to some kind of bio-weapons enforcement protocol. But if Bush continues to resist, the others will follow our example. Every nation knows how to make biological weapons. An arms race, like the plague, is contagious. It is also deadly. The time to stop it is now.