by David Phinney
Friday July 12th 2024



New Tools of Fear and Death

By David Phinney (1998)
Fifteen thousand raucous hockey fans fill a downtown stadium on a Friday night to see the Washington Capitals take on the Philadelphia Flyers.
But shortly after the 7 p.m. face-off, terrorists trigger an explosive charge that showers poisonous chemicals over the crowd.
Washington, D.C.’s proud new stadium becomes a hellhole of death and confusion. People reel in all directions as crowds push their way to clogged exits. Others fall to the ground choking and coughing. Their skin blisters. People attempting to help become victims themselves after breathing the poisoned air.
In this nightmare scenario, they have become targets of what experts predict will be a more brutal kind of terrorism, bringing with it the threat of a completely new kind of disaster: terrorist attacks with chemical and biological weapons.
In the aftermath of this hypothetical attack, surging crowds stampede over each other in panic. The city’s 911 emergency lines flood with calls for help and medical assistance.
Police and fire fighters arrive within minutes and set up a staging area upwind, but keep their distance. No one knows yet what sort of lethal chemical the terrorists have uncorked. Authorities block off the neighborhood, seeking to contain the contamination from the rest of the city. Because of new rules of procedure, emergency professionals normally trained to risk danger have to wait until victims find their way out of the stadium, where they can be decontaminated.

‘Poor Man’s Nukes’
Experts call chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction “poor man’s nukes.” They are inexpensive to produce, yet powerful enough to murder thousands of people—perhaps millions. Such weapons may soon become tools of choice in a new age of terrorism where killers seek to threaten large numbers of people.

“This is not ‘shake and bake’ weaponry, but if you have some technical skills, then you can produce them cheaply and the information is easily had,” notes Amy Smithson, an expert on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington policy center devoted to national security issues.

‘We Have To Be Prepared’
“What we know is it can happen and we have to be prepared,” warns Army Maj. Gen. George Friel. As commanding general of the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command, Friel coordinates a federal effort to train 120 cities across the country to learn about terrorists packing a new kind of weapon.
That program is just one of more than 40 different initiatives the federal government is now spending billions on to defend citizens against biochemical terrorism.

In January, Friel met with 200 local and federal emergency workers in Washington, D.C., where they spent a week preparing for possible terrorist attacks in the nation’s capital. The training ended with a full day of intense discussions over what would happen if a chemical weapon was deployed at the city’s new $225 million MCI Center indoor stadium.

No ‘Cookie-Cutter Answers’
During the exercise, police complained they lacked the personnel to defend the city even if given warning by the FBI. Hospital workers asked what they should do with walk-in patients who might still be contaminated. Staff assistants from City Hall fretted over how to deal with the media. Others suggested that communications with emergency workers might break down. How can you trust what you hear by E-mail, telephone or fax during a terrorist attack?
These are concerns that must be addressed ahead of time, they are told.
“You are the experts. You in your community are the experts,” says John Bond, project manager with Research Planning Inc., a Falls Church, Va., company under contract to direct the session. “There are no cookie-cutter answers. Each city is unique.”

A Silent Weapon
But answers may be hard to come by. Consultants working with cities around the country claim that a biochemical weapon attack may be difficult to detect even after the fact.
Terrorists may choose to silently spray biochemical agent from an aerosol can, sprinkle it from a small plane, or disperse the deadly substance from the exhaust of a car passing through town.
Once let loose, such weapons could inflict days of swelling pain, then death. Some biochemical agents may cause people to choke, gasp and vomit as intense pain knots their stomachs…Nerves numb, muscles contract, fever grips the body, blisters and ulcers lace the skin. Others kill almost instantly, leaving no time for medics to distribute treatments.

Wielding Disproportionate Power
So far, obstacles to effective deployment provide the best protection against a large-scale biochemical attack. But it may be only a matter of time before someone or some country finds a way, say national security analysts. “The ability to unleash mass sickness, death, and destruction today has reached a far greater order of magnitude as the new millennium approaches,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said recently. “Regional aggressors, third-rate armies, terrorist cells, and even religious cults will wield disproportionate power.”
Ongoing tensions with rogue nations around the world only inflame fears of a possible terrorist strike. Some countries appear poised to use these grim weapons without warning, say U.S. officials. They caution that terrorists carrying vials of toxic agents could slip over this nation’s borders undetected.

Rogue Nations Pursue Weapons
The dead in Iran and Kurdistan provide silent testimony to Iraq’s willingness to unleash weapons of mass destruction. Under the direction of President Saddam Hussein, the nation may now have stockpiled more than enough raw materials to kill every man, woman and child on earth several times over if made into actual weapons.
But threats from within could be as serious as those around the globe.
Fringe domestic organizations made up of religious fanatics, secret right-wing militias, anti-abortion extremists and ethnic hate groups have been showing keen interest in biochemical weapons, according to FBI sources.
More than three dozen incidents on U.S. soil of people attempting to develop or use such weapons are now under active investigation by the FBI’s antiterrorism unit. That’s double the number from the previous year.

A New Age of Terrorism
That trend augurs a new age in terrorism—one in which weapons of mass destruction reach the hands of individuals seeking to murder countless numbers of people as an end in itself.
“There’s an incremental creep away from terrorism as solely a political act aimed at getting attention,” notes James Ken Campbell of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who recently authored the book Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism.
Others agree.
“Instead of wanting to get a lot of people to watch, there are those who now want a lot of people dead,” notes Brad Roberts with the Institute for Defense Analysis, in Washington, D.C.

Threat Overhyped?
Not all are convinced that there is a new terrorism threat. They claim government authorities have overreacted to a situation of minimal consequence, or that defense contractors need a specter now that the Soviet Union is gone in order to justify Pentagon spending.
“Terrorism is in decline. More people die from drowning than terrorism, but we’re not restructuring society for 500 deaths in bathtubs,” says David Kopel, an analyst with the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden, Colo.
Kopel and others worry new spending programs and sweeping new laws such as the 1996 anti-terrorism bill hand over far too much authority to federal agencies. Kopel also objects to the Clinton administration’s push to limit encryption technology, which is in part an anti-terrorist measure. “The FBI now wants the ability to read everyone’s E-mail,” he said.
But the emergence of possible biochemical attack troubles even Kopel. “The Constitution was not designed for that particular set of technologies. A criminal could do far more damage than two centuries ago.”
Still, no major attack has yet been launched. And chemical and biological weapons have been around since the turn of the century. “Production is one thing, but delivering the weapon is totally different,” observes Javed Ali, research associate with Chemical and Biological Arms Control, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “If terrorists thought they were such an attractive tool, then they wouldn’t be running around using bombs.”


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