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Forbes.com

 

Panic and Terrorism

March 31, 2003

By Peter W. Huber

Mace or pepper spray used by security guards apparently sparked a deadly stampede in a Chicago nightclub in February. Convinced that they were "literally choking to death," as one woman described it, party-goers trampled 21 people to death in a wild scramble for the exit. Days later the crowd at a Rhode Island club apparently saw little to worry about in a rock band's pyrotechnic display, even in the first few moments after the fireworks ignited foam tiles in a suspended ceiling. Ninety-eight people died.

America got a good look at pyrotechnic terrorism in Oklahoma City in April 1995, and another in September 2001. Sooner or later we'll see chemical, radiological and biological attacks, too. The technologies needed to produce the raw materials are readily available, and geopolitical reality makes their eventual use against us inevitable. We need to do all we can to prove that prediction wrong. And we need to methodically prepare for a rational response when it's proved right.

So far as chemical attacks go, the government's most urgent task is to teach people to forget most of what they've learned in several decades of environmental scaremongering. Chemicals are much less dangerous than junk-science agitators have been telling us. Acute effects are felt only when concentrations are high. Dilution and dispersal are near-perfect remedies. And long-term effects are far less grave than the greens have been telling us.

What Tom Ridge ought to be explaining--systematically and persistently--is that a chemical attack, when it comes, will in all likelihood require the short-term evacuation of a building or maybe a neighborhood, not the long-term evacuation of a city. We didn't have to evacuate Love Canal in 1978, or Times Beach in 1982. The peril today lies more in the panicky stampede an attack may precipitate than in the chemistry itself. The economic impact, too, will be more a consequence of mindless fear than of chemically caused death and injury.

Much the same is true of radiation. The most likely radiological attack of any consequence won't involve a jet flying into a civilian power plant. It will involve the use of conventional explosives or incendiaries to disperse a pea-size piece of cesium or something much like it. The big, centralized depositories of nuclear materials within the U.S. are well fortified and protected; the thousands of dispersed medical and industrial sources in this country, and the military and civilian sources abroad, are far more worrisome. Here again, however, the biggest short-term threat to safety isn't radiation, it's panic, and then lingering fear, which could force the long-term abandonment of, say, lower Manhattan or Washington, D.C. We ought to be teaching people that nobody, in fact, died at Three Mile Island; that because of its altitude, Denver is a high-radiation city but still a great place to live; and that almost everything ordinary people think they know about the insidious horrors of low-level radiation isn't true.

The biologicals ought to be the biggest worry, yet they seem to be taken the least seriously. Most Americans are too young to remember smallpox, whooping cough and polio. The memories aren't there because vaccines all but eradicated these dreadful diseases--many of us are now at the age when we can remember our sensible parents rejoicing that they could take us, in the 1950s, to the centers that were distributing the early polio vaccines. To its enduring shame, our trial bar has spent recent decades attacking the manufacturers of vaccines and spreading dangerous falsehoods about the perils of being vaccinated. As a direct result we now lack the medical-industrial infrastructure to mass-manufacture the vaccines we need, and we lack as well corporations willing to invest the necessary capital and the national will to get ourselves and our children to the vaccine clinics. Our parents would be ashamed of us.

The point has been made time and again: Too much fear can be as hazardous and costly as too little; sometimes what is most required is the courage and the wisdom to do less, not more. The risks of chemical, radiological and biological attack are all deadly serious. With that said, we don't need more duct tape. What we need, after decades of paranoia-inducing miseducation about environmental hazards, is to bury the frivolous science of Love Canal, TMI, silicone implants and vaccine litigation, then to return to our senses and prepare to deal rationally and calmly with the serious "environmental" hazards that most certainly lie ahead.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/iraq/free_forbes/2003/0331/073.html

 

 
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