Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime; Bioterrorism: Confronting a Complex Threat

In This Review

Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime

By Barry Kellman
Cambridge University Press, 2007
390 pp. $80.00
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Bioterrorism: Confronting a Complex Threat

By Andreas Wenger and Reto Wollenmann
Lynne Rienner, 2007
241 pp. $52.00
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According to Kellman, a law professor, bioviolence is "the infliction of harm by the intentional manipulation of living micro-organisms for hostile purposes." There is, he argues, a perpetual war going on between humanity and microbes: supporting the microbes is "species treason." Kellman emphasizes the risks resulting from advances in biotechnology, the ease with which disease can spread, and the development of forms of political strife in which biological routes to mass slaughter might seem enticing. Measures that might protect against catastrophe have not been taken, he complains, because policymakers are poorly informed about the dangers, think nationally rather than internationally, and lack an integrative approach. Kellman's tone is at times shrill, but his detail is impressive, and the risks are hardly trivial. He sees the threat to be so great that it challenges ideas about how the international community should govern itself, and he eloquently shows why muddling through is not good enough. Given the ambition of some of his prescriptions, however, muddling through may be a more likely course.

Kellman's puzzle is why there has yet to be a major incident of bioviolence. The use of disease to exterminate the unwary is not new -- recall Native Americans being handed rugs infected with small pox. In the twentieth century, the great powers developed biological weapons until concluding that they would be tricky to use effectively in war. Al Qaeda has shown an unnerving interest in toxins, and some cults and terrorists have conducted some nasty little experiments, but so far with limited results. The Wenger and Wollenmann volume focuses largely on the problem faced by policymakers when there are so many uncertainties. The issue, as Anthony Cordesman puts it, is "when to cry wolf, what to cry, and how to cry it." This is not an area about which anybody wants to appear complacent, but Milton Leitenberg's essay is worth reading for the view that the danger of bioterrorism has been deliberately exaggerated in recent years. This creates the risk of preparing for the wrong contingency: the real danger may be a natural pandemic (such as avian flu). More seriously, it puts noxious ideas into the heads of terrorists. The challenge, accordingly, is how to get governments to take prudent steps to prepare for a wolf without constantly yelling that one is on its way.

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