The Power of the Small
disruptive effects of small-scale biochemical terrorism
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What will be the next major disruptor of the way in which society is
organized? The following note explores the dangers of small-scale biochemical
terrorism. On a large-scale this has been endlessly discussed in terms
of "weapons of mass destruction", but there is almost no discussion of
its disruptive effect on the smallest scales. These may be more challening
than mass destruction.
To show relevance, I will point to pieces in the last few days of the
(a) Brian Michael Jenkins (Deputy Chairman of the Kroll-O'Gara security
governments like Saddam's: "Might it turn over cruder versions of its
deadly stocks to
actual terrorist groups? Or might terrorists on their own be inspired
murder?...The bigger danger to society may come from those tiny groups
individuals who can't or won't make such calaculations [on constraints
on the need
for their use]" (IHT, 14-14/12/97)
(b) The Pentagon has arranged for a pioneering Marine Corps unit, trained
to respond to
germ and poison gas attacks, to be present at major events in
the USA, starting with the
1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "Despite these and other precautions, however,
acknowledge that efforts to protect the country against germ weapons
are in their infancy
and that military resources are inadequate to cope with attacks involving
substances capable of killing tens of thousands of people...Recent
defense studies have
warned that the spread of information about how to produce and deliver
agents...has raised the risk of biolgocal or chemical attack." (IHT,
(c) "Defense Secretary William Cohen decided Monday that the 1.5
million members of
the armed forces should be inoculated against anthrax, a biological
agent that can be
fatal even in microscopic amounts" (IHT, 16/12/97)
Of course the Pentagon may just be using this as a means of getting more
consider the implications of the following on a small scale:
- What is the biochemical equivalent of a letter bomb? It is a letter
which anyone can receive on which a contact poison has been placed. Even
if it is "only" a secretary who opens the letter, once infected, the contagion
can easily spread to others in the office. What will this do to correspondence
and all who depend on it? For more effect, consider an actual parcel containing
a substance that can be released. And junk mail?
- Consider the ease with which dishes could be contaiminated in public
restaurants by casual employees in the kitchen. How will this affect (international)
receptions and meetings, and the many restaurant-based negotiations?
- Aerosol cans are an ideal distributor for some agents. People use
them in public for hairsprays, asthma, etc. What could be achieved by a
"suicide bomber", whether walking a street or committed to a major release
of some such substance? Consider the sarin incident in Japan. How might
that work in Jerusalem?
- Security checks, notably at airports and at entrances to certain
facilities, are currently focussed on metal detection. Biochemical agents
can be concealed in many more ways -- a person can simply be contagious.
How will this affect people's willingness to travel or to attend events?
How little effort would be required to permanently disrupt one parliamentary
assembly -- and make it improbable that parliamentarians would be willing
to risk attending another?
- How little effort would be required to distribute an agent from one
person onto another in the street through casual contact? How would this
affect people's willingness to use the streets and public walkways? Note
that one of the risks currently reported in Dublin is muggings using a
syringe purportedly filled with HIV contaminated blood.
- How much effort would be required to place contact poisons on car
door handles? Or on front door, or office door, handles? How little effort
would be required to render an exposed garden into a dangerous place? How
would this affect people's attitudes?
- What would this potential do to any public gathering -- even of an
association or a group assembly? "Disruptive" elements might take on a
new significance. Such gatherings would just not be worth the risK. How
could civil society then be managed?
- How much effort is required to contaminate a municipal water supply,
a gas supply (agents would be effective before lighting), an air-conditioning
system, or widely used consumer products (note recent scares on some supermarket
products)? How would people be expected to respond?
- It is likely that activist pro-environment groups will use the opportunity
to "free up" sites under threat from developers by disseminating suitable
agents to render them uninhabitable and too expensive to de-contaminate.
Biochemical interdiction -- or the threat of it -- will become a new strategy
for such groups.
These and other possibilities indicate how vulnerable individuals
are in a society which has not even considered these threats in any meaningful
way. It would be worth exploring how the very real threats of poisoning
were handled in European Middle Age societies, in Arab cultures and in
Far Eastern cultures.
Of more relevance to issues of "information/society/governance" is
the possible nature of the reactive response, by individuals, groups
and governments to was is potentially not a single source threat on any
conventionally detectable scale:
- In the Middle Ages, food tasting was often a requirement for any
person of importance
-- implying a new form of "bodyguard"? Louis Farakhan's bodyguards
brought in his personal bottle of Evian water at the Parliament of the
World's Relgions in Chicago (1995), replacing that offered to participants.
- People will quickly switch to wearing gloves under almost all
circumstances -- even to open a letter (somewhat as gloves are now used
to handle sandwiches at counters -- for the opposite reason). But there
will be a felt need to wear body coverings -- a "fashionable" equivalent
to what troops wear. The Japanese proclivity for face-masks when suffering
a cold, will become required. It will become dangerous to be encountered
in public with what appears to be a cold -- recalling attitudes towards
lepers. Who will want to accept coins or money from a stranger?
- It is possible that just as populations have been weaned away from
public water supplies to bottled drinking water (of often lower quality)
by dubious marketing, so a major opportunity will be seen in providing
bottled air -- already available as "boosters" in some locations. Scare-mongering
-- notably by security firms -- will therefore be to the financial advantage
of distributors of these and related products and services.
- Government response will tend to be extreme and reactive, with room
for little subtlety. The public will expect "action" in areas where
government has never been skilled at acting with any subtlety. This may
be quite satisfactory to those of right-wing tendencies -- as with the
consequences of the bomb scares in France. Beyond spurious arguments for
"national security", advantage will be taken of new arguments for "biological
security" to further particular causes insensitive to the interests of
the disempowered. It is probable that right of movement will be severly
will become much more invasive -- especially the invasive body
- Groups will tend to either set up biologically secure environments
(building on current security systems) and/or migrate to isolated locations
where they have greater control over their living/working environments.
This will reinforce the tendency towards walled suburbs, but will require
that these de-link from the surrounding systems in the case of water
or gas supplies.
- Corporations will offer foodstuffs "guaranteed free of contaminants",
raising issues already seen in the case of marketing of organic foodstuffs.
- Pharamaceutical corporations will be in their element -- controlling
resources and skills to respond to such threats. A significant opportunity
will be open to the most dubious, namely distribution of counter-actants
-- to biochemical agents they may themselves arrange discretely to release!
Who will be able to prove otherwise?
- There will be a massive move away from unmediated face-to-face contact
and therefore almost total reliance on electronic communications. As
AIDS has demonstrated with respect to safe-sex intercourse, "safe-communication"
intercourse will be seen to require some protective interface --
whether gloves, a plastic veil, a glass wall, or electronic distance.
It is questionable whether cafes, pubs, discos and public eating places
will survive except as high risk experiences for the daring -- like unsafe-sex.
- Mass meetings of any kind will tend to be prohibited or require
special permission and expensive protection. Major events, like the Olympics,
will tend to be "television only". This will have severe consequences
for the economics of the conference and exhibition industries. It will
ensure the cessation of political rallies and conventions.
- Tourism will tend to become a high risk experience, as Egypt has
recently demonstrated. There will be tendency to offer guaranteed "safe
experiences" in contained environments -- perhaps to the advantage of some
isolated tourist locations. Airplanes and buses will be specially adapted
and subject to a level of security beyond that currently practiced on El
Al. Note that the threat of AIDS is already severely increasing the risk
of events in some locations and continents -- especially given the dubious
guarantees concerning infection via mosquito ("dirty syringes"?).
- Some will seek to take advantage of biochemical technology
to "deal with" unwelcome people in their environment. Noisy neighbours?
Bullies? Unwelcome groups? Intransigent decision-makers? The Middle Age
traditions will be revived.
- One of the positive effects will be on certain forms of mugging
and rape. Use of Middle Age poison rings as a protection against rape
will emerge. Of course, these will also be used by muggers and rapists
as a new form of intimidation.
- There will be a major increase in intimidation, whether of
decision-makers in government, of corporations or groups able to offer
ransom moneys, or of individuals. This will be exploited by organized crime
but also by political and corporate "dirty-tricks" departments.
- The niceties of "sustainability" and "human rights" will tend to
be de-prioritized -- perhaps to the advantage of the environment.