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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
War View: 'Anthrax is mostly in the mind'
Anthrax is proving a very effective weapon of terror, simply by the mass panic it is causing. But look at the facts, says Dr John Gearson, senior lecturer in defence studies at King's College, London.

The anthrax scare continues to grow and around the world people feel more vulnerable than at any time since the height of the Cold War as they face the threat of bio-chemical terrorist attack. Government officials struggle to reassure the public, while conflicting and lurid reports from an excited, and directly targeted, media do little to calm the situation.

In two weeks, one person has died of anthrax and 1,000 in car accidents

The source of the letters and the anthrax within them is still not known and may yet prove to be the work of a deranged individual rather than a global terrorist conspiracy. Meanwhile, America has been hit by almost 2,500 false alarms and hoaxes which have caused more disruption than the letters themselves. Are we being terrorised or are we terrorising ourselves?

Terrorism has traditionally been about the threat of violence, as much as the physical results. Terrorists, who are by definition weak, compensate for this by attempting to create fear and uncertainty in target societies, along with an impression of relentlessness through repeated attacks.

In the current anthrax scare all of these components are in place. What is particularly terrifying about biological and chemical weapons is that they can be colourless, odourless and invisible to the naked eye. We are unsure how to defend against the threat and uncertain about the potential harm our opponents can inflict upon us.

Civilians at risk?

But we are not particularly good at risk assessment at the best of times and this should caution us in the current climate of fear and uncertainty. In the two weeks since the anthrax scare began to sweep the USA more than a thousand Americans have died in car accidents, but the roads have not been shut down.

The barriers to mass murder through the chemical and biological weapons remain very high

Once going to war was a dangerous undertaking, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the reverse is true - at least for the combatants. During Operation Desert Storm, if the US military personnel involved had stayed in continental USA, more would have died in car accidents and homicides than were killed in the conflict itself. War has become more dangerous for civilians than militaries, as the anthrax scare shows in sharp relief.

Yet the bomb and bullet have remained weapons of choice for terrorists throughout the last hundred years or more and there are good reasons to think this will continue. Despite the danger that further use of anthrax may occur in the next few days and weeks, the barriers to mass murder through the use of chemical and biological weapons remain very high for groups and lone individuals, without substantial state help.

Aum Shinriko, the Japanese cult which boasted a multinational membership of over 50,000 and vast technical and financial resources, spent years and millions of pounds trying to develop and deploy a biological weapon, but failed for two reasons.

Difficult to develop

First, developing materials in pure enough forms to allow for effective dissemination is extraordinarily complex, and second, distributing the materials in a wide enough area to effect large numbers of people remains dauntingly difficult. In more than a dozen attempts to release botulism and anthrax Aum failed to kill anyone at all. Eventually, the cult managed to release the chemical agent sarin on the Tokyo underground and killed 12 people, not the tens of thousands they were hoping to kill.

As a weapon of fear, bio-chemical terrorism may become the weapon of choice

Terrorism had crossed an important psychological threshold though. While the world's militaries have tended to shun chemical and biological weapons as not particularly efficient weapons, terrorists do not need such weapons to be operationally effective, because they deal primarily in fear of violence, not violence itself.

In causing anxiety and panic, those behind the anthrax letters have reverted to a traditional form of terrorism in which the psychological effects of their actions have become more important than the physical effects.

We need to remember that chemical and biological weapons remain a potentially high consequence, but (still) very low probability weapon of choice for terrorists. However, as a weapon of fear and panic, bio-chemical terrorism may now become the weapon of choice for any group seeking to terrorise its enemies.

War Views is a series of personal opinions we are publishing to reflect on the issues raised by the war on terror. You can add your comments by using the form below.

Your comments:

Terrorism of this kind is hardly new - for example, in the 1970s it was rumoured that mercury had been injected into oranges exported from Israel. What makes these anthrax letters so effective as a terror weapon is the context - the possible link to an adversary who has already demonstrated his ruthlessness by murdering some 6,000 individuals, and who is known to be under attack. Were the international situation less tense, they would not wreak anything like this amount of havoc.
Peter, Netherlands

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