- NEWARK, N.J.--Saddam Hussein's biological game-playing should fool no one.
Following Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi leader agreed to
let U.N. inspectors supervise the elimination of his country's germ and
chemical weapons. Six years later, the inspectors are convinced that Iraq
still is hiding germ-war leftovers, and maybe some new stocks.
- But while trying to find and destroy
these arsenals, U.N. inspectors have been denied entry to Hussein's palaces.
Last week, the Iraqis suddenly announced that the palaces might be opened
to inspection, but U.S. officials remained wary. There are 78 of them,
any of which could be a biological-weapons factory.
- Whether Hussein's principal aim is to
taunt the United States and its allies or to intimidate his neighbors is
unclear. But anything less than unconditional access to suspected locations
would invite a biological or chemical nightmare.
- One special fright about germ weapons
is just how quickly and easily they can be made. A single disease-producing
bacterium, which can divide every 20 minutes, could give rise to more than
a billion bacteria in 10 hours. Thus, a vial about the size of a bottle
of aspirin tablets could yield a huge arsenal in less than a week. For
some diseases, like anthrax, inhaling a few thousand bacteria, which would
take up less area than the period at the end of this sentence, could be
- Without the restraint imposed by outside
monitors, Iraq's know-how from its earlier biological and chemical warfare
programs could create a catalog of horrors. A whiff of a nerve agent like
sarin or VX, or a single drop on the skin, can kill in minutes.
- But a biological arsenal would be even
more frightening. A 1993 government study indicated that 220 pounds of
anthrax bacteria released from a slow-flying airplane could kill 3 million
people. And anthrax is not even contagious. An attack with the bacteria
that cause plague, or the viruses that cause smallpox, could start an epidemic.
- The 1995 release of sarin by a Japanese
cult in the Tokyo subway showed how dreadful a chemical attack could be.
The nerve agent killed 12 people and injured 5,500. Had the poison been
a biological agent, the subway might still be unusable, as past biological
warfare tests suggest. During the 1940s, British and American scientists
released anthrax bacteria in tests on Gruinard Island, off the coast of
Scotland. It took 40 years before the island could be sufficiently decontaminated
for humans to return.
- Similarly, during a six-day period in
1966, the army released bacteria it considered to be harmless, called bacillus
subtilis, into the New York subway. Testers would toss a light bulb filled
with bacteria onto the tracks as a train entered the station. The air currents
whipped up by the train spread the germs around.
- Although presenting some risk to passengers,
those bacteria were not as dangerous as actual germ-war agents. But the
test showed that more than a million New Yorkers were exposed to the bacilli.
The army's report concluded that had the bacteria been true pathogens,
"a large portion of the working population in downtown New York City
would be exposed to disease." Contagious agents would have infected
passengers who then would unknowingly transmit disease to their families
and friends far beyond the area of original release.
- The roots of repugnance toward poison
weapons are deep. Such weapons were singled out for disdain more than 2,000
years ago in Hindu writings and in Greek and Roman codes of conduct. Roman
law provided special punishment to poisoners, including banishment and
exposure to wild animals. Biological warfare were the first to be banned
entirely by international agreement. In outlawing them, the 1972 Biological
Weapons Convention describes their use as "repugnant to the conscience
- The taboo against the use of biological
agents is not ironclad. But just as individuals who commit murder or incest
deserve punishment, so should leaders and nations that traffic in banned
weapons face penalties. Hussein demonstrated his unwillingness to abide
by moral constraints when he used poison gas against Iran and his own citizens
in the 1980s. Allowing him to develop biological or chemical arsenals vastly
increases the probability that these weapons will be used again.
- Unless the international community insists
that Iraqi territory be opened to unfettered inspection, the next use of
poison weapons may not be Hussein's fault alone. We all will have been