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Victims of Invisible Threats

Chemical and biological weapons have thus come to symbolize absolute evil, and are thus utilized as propaganda weapons by the United States to justify the creation and maintenance of enemies, continued overexpenditure on the military, and specific policies to reward, punish, and even attack other countries.

Dan McGee

Issue #40, October 1998

On August 20, 1998, the United States conducted air strikes against the forces of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The United States also used cruise missiles to destroy a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. These attacks were planned in utmost secrecy, and took the world completely by surprise. The justification for the Afghanistan attack was strong circumstantial evidence linking bin Laden and his associates to the embassy bombings themselves. The pharmaceutical plant, however, was not directly linked to these events. Rather, this factory was bombed because of evidence that it was used to either store or manufacture ingredients for producing chemical weapons. The United States claimed that this plant, in fact, had secretly produced chemical weapons for bin Laden's use. Indeed, the alleged presence of chemical weapons brought a strong sense of urgency, morality, and legitimacy to the decision to attack the factory in Sudan.

Ever since the Gulf War, the news and popular media have paid tremendous attention to the traffic in chemical and biological weapons. The term "traffic" denotes movement and trade, but it also connotes chaos, illicit activity, and danger. The prevalence of "traffic" thus begs for cops to regulate chaotic or illicit flows: if a large number of cars is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of traffic, policemen must surely be the second. In the face of a perceived disorderly and illicit global arms trade, the United States has appointed itself as weapons traffic cop of the world. The highest priority within this duty to protect and to serve free markets is the regulation of the traffic in weapons of mass destruction.

Of all potential threats to national security, chemical and biological weapons (CBW) have in recent years received the most attention. The United States, in exerting strenuous efforts to prevent Iraq and other "rogue nations" from developing effective CBW deterrence, has trained military and civilian forces to prepare to respond in the event of an attack with a chemical or biological agent, and has made diplomatic efforts to broker international agreements to ban the manufacture, stockpile, or use of these weapons. But the proliferation of official and popular discourses about chemical and biological weapons has also yielded a cultural product, a means of constructing enemies to the US as monsters who are willing and capable of unleashing unthinkable atrocities upon human populations. Chemical and biological weapons have thus come to symbolize absolute evil, and are thus utilized as propaganda weapons by the United States to justify the creation and maintenance of enemies, continued overexpenditure on the military, and specific policies to reward, punish, and even attack other countries. The practical, albeit misguided, conclusion of this rhetoric may well be found in the rubble of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant.

On September 21, 1998, a New York Times headline read "Decision to Strike Factory in Sudan Based on Surmise," with the subtitle, "No Smoking Gun Found." We learn in this story, by Tim Weiner and James Risen, that the evidence linking the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum to chemical weapons production was not as strong as the Clinton administration had originally suggested. Indeed, the decision to bomb the factory was based on unreliable informants and "strong inference." According to this and other news reports, the possibility of a faulty decision, and thus of misdirected missiles, innocent casualties, and wanton destruction of a precious medical facility, resulted from the hurried and secretive manner in which the administration made its decision, and from the faulty intelligence network it relied on to choose its targets. Apparently, CIA agents have been spread rather thinly in Sudan in recent years, and there has been repeated problems with unreliable informants.

If this was in fact a "bad decision," one based on conjecture and not on a real and credible threat, was it really just the result of haste and bad information? The involvement of unverified "chemical weapons" complicates the picture, because it raises the possibility that intelligence sources and the administration have begun to take their own rhetoric concerning weapons of mass destruction too seriously. The fear, revulsion, and utter urgency created by the possibility of an enemy acquiring these weapons may have overridden the dangers of violating international law, of trampling on human rights, of killing and maiming people, and even of making a mistake and picking the wrong "enemy."

But this incident did not arise in a vacuum. Punitive public bombing, as opposed to secret bombing, has been a standard United States diplomatic gesture ever since the attacks on Libya. Moammar Gadhafi provided the template of a masculine, Arab leader who served as a symbol of evil and object of American hatred, a man worthy of being bombed. Gadhafi's successor, Saddam Hussein (a.k.a. "Beast of Baghdad" and "Wolf of Babylon" as news commentators in the US called him), combined the above elements with violent tyranny, genocide, invasion of neighboring countries, and possession of chemical and biological weapons to become America's Most Wanted Foreigner. It is interesting to note that prior to the Gulf War, however, the United States officially had little to say about Iraq's manufacture of chemical weapons, or even its use of them against Iran, as well as against the Kurds in northern Iraq.

After the Gulf War, the attention to chemical and biological weapons increased dramatically as the extent of Iraq's development of these weapons was gradually revealed. This escalated until weapons inspections by the United Nations Special Commission on the Middle East became the litmus test for releasing economic sanctions against Iraq. This led to the present all-too-familiar cat and mouse game between Iraq, UN arms inspection teams, and US aircraft carriers that has persisted up to the present. Iraq has repeatedly refused to cooperate with inspectors until the brink of disaster.

zoom When Iraq pushed this behavior too far, the United States repeatedly launched air strikes or cruise missiles against Iraq, not to eliminate their alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capability (this was not possible, because you can't bomb something you can't find), but to punish them. However, when Iraq did cooperate with the inspections, the United States continued to insist on maintaining economic sanctions against Iraq. The ultimate result of this all sticks, no carrots approach to "diplomacy" was that after a long series of crises, punctuated by brief moments of stability, Iraq suspended all inspections by UN teams on August 5, 1998. Currently, (mid-October, 1998), the United Nations is attempting to cajole Iraq into cooperating with weapons inspectors, with the possibility of having sanctions lifted. The United States is the sole opponent to this effort to re-enter negotiations with Iraq, insisting that the status quo situation be maintained on the grounds that its scientists had evidence Iraq had loaded VX nerve gas into some of its missiles (Swiss scientists claim they found no such evidence).

Chemical and especially biological weapons require much less equipment and manufacture than do nuclear weapons. They also do not require large or complex delivery systems such as ballistic missiles. They are comparatively "microscopic" weapons, and for this reason it is difficult to prove either their existence or their non-existence. The invisibility of these weapons plays into the rhetoric justifying ever more infinitesimal, intrusive, and high-tech inspections of Iraq and other countries suspected of developing these weapons. Their invisibility also bolsters the fear that chemical and biological weapons may fall into the hands of terrorist groups who, according to government reports, intend to use them, rather than simply hold them as a deterrent.

Official, academic, and popular media sources alike present chemical and biological agents as presenting special dangers to international security because of their invisibility, and because they can be concealed "even in a lunch box," as one scholar commented. Biological weapons are configured as particularly evil and demented, as they represent the hijacking of nature for purposes of mass murder. The literature on biological warfare is peppered with words such as "morally repugnant", "horrible," and "unthinkable." CBW can be developed at a very low expense compared to nuclear weapons, and are thus termed "the poor man's atomic bomb." For a nation to wield these destructive devices is presented as a sneaky, underhanded, very dirty, dastardly deed. Nations that have developed these weapons, including the United States, have always done so secretly. This attitude stands in sharp contrast to the rather loud announcements by countries such as India, Pakistan, and China of their national successes in building nuclear bombs, testing ballistic missiles, etc. In other words, nuclear weapons are a matter of international prestige, a symbol of technological progress. Nuclear weapons thus become "clean" weapons of mass destruction, in contradistinction to "dirty" chemical and biological weapons.

The imagery and symbolism of biological and chemical weapons might not be such a bad thing if they were really articulated with a unified cultural value that CBW are abhorrent and should be altogether abolished. Ditto for nuclear weapons. If this were so we might expect to find a unified policy front against them, such as, "If any country develops or uses WMD we will punish them with sanctions, or with bombs in the event of a forthcoming election." However, what we find in practice is that the United States emphasizes it when some countries develop these weapons and de-emphasizes it when other countries do so. The example of Russia is instructive. In 1979, there was an outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, USSR. The US decried this as evidence that the Soviets were making biological weapons in direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. As it turns out, the US claims were right. However, when this was revealed in 1992 by Boris Yeltsin, who came clean by admitting that Russia had until then maintained an active biological weapons program, the United States responded cautiously and diplomatically. Indeed, at a CBW conference I attended recently, Senator Dick Lugar, the keynote speaker, practically fell over himself creating excuses for the Russian biological warfare scientists, stating that the only problem these people posed was when they worked for the wrong nations. Faced with underemployment and Russian economic collapse, Lugar said that "hardship and necessity eventually overcome pride and professional responsibility," driving these otherwise noble researchers to sell their services to the unscrupulous leaders of other countries.

Other recent events provide additional verification that United States policy regarding weapons of mass destruction is spotty if not fully hypocritical. India's, followed by Pakistan's, detonation of multiple nuclear blasts in May 1998 evoked strong outcries from the United States, but no sanctions and certainly no bombs. And most recently, on October 2 it was revealed that an Israeli El Al cargo jet that crashed in Amsterdam in 1992 had a component of the nerve gas Sarin on board. As of yet, the US has issued no public official response to Israel regarding its potential chemical weapons program.

The inconsistencies within the United States' responses to revelations of CBW development by different countries reveals definite strategic interests in regulating the production of these weapons by some countries. In other cases, however, the interests in global arms control and international security are at least in the short term overridden by the desire to maintain friendly diplomatic relations. This process of designating threats involves not just selective attention, but also selective signification as the whole range of signs associated with biological and chemical weapons demarcating threat, danger, pollution, deceit, and cowardice are all invoked differentially in official and popular discourses.

However, the fears of chemical and biological warfare, and all the meanings certifying this fear, are also underwritten by definite economic interests within the United States. Enormously expensive programs conducting research on CBW such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have received dramatic increases in funding over recent years due to concerns over CBW. The US military has formed special high-tech response teams such as the Army's Technical Escort Unit and the Marine Corps Chemical and Biological Incidence Response Force to act as emergency response and medical teams that deactivate chemical and biological weapons and provide medical assistance in case of a CBW attack. Major US cities are currently receiving federal grants and military technical assistance to train fire and medical personnel to respond to a CBW incident: the Domestic Preparedness Program, conducted under the auspices of the Department of Defense, is charged with providing this training to civilian personnel. In 1997 alone, the United States approved a $130 million dollar project to vaccinate all US armed forces against anthrax (the company that produces this vaccine is led by Adm. William J, Crowe, Jr., former Joint Chiefs of Staff and long-term Clinton supporter), and awarded $322 million to Dyncorp of Reston, Virginia, to develop new vaccines against biological weapons. The point here is not that all of these programs are unnecessary, but that they involve definite corporate interests, and new alliances between the military and biomedical industries. These interests can only be sustained by maintaining public fear of these chemical and biological agents, as well as the belief that the US has credible enemies who wield these weapons.

The United States is today the largest arms exporter in the world. This tremendous proliferation of conventional arms is justified as "commerce." When the distribution of weaponry is not certified by the US government, and especially when it is WMD, it is chaotic "traffic" which must be regulated. However, the United States' own export of arms in the Cold War has not been without effect: it contributed to the long-term destabilization of much of the developing world. Indeed the US itself is still suffering from its own mistakes: in the case of the attack against Osama bin Laden the US is swallowing the backwash of its own arms distribution binge. The tragedy of Kenyan, Tanzanian, and American civilian lives lost during the recent embassy bombings should serve as a warning of the possible outcomes of such policies.

Playing the role of CBW traffic cop has placed the United States in the dubious position of forever chasing paper trails of otherwise only tenuously verifiable weapons. To maintain public support for this approach, the United Sates has had to rely heavily on the demonization of "rogue nations" and their leaders to lend credibility to its claims of imminent threat. In the case of Iraq this has been easy: Saddam Hussein is so thoroughly hated in the US that few doubt the veracity and extent of US claims regarding Iraq's weapons abuses. However, the case of Sudan shows that an expansion of this international policy of taking invisible weapons too seriously has ominous possibilities for the future of international security and peace. The construction of (and retaliation against) symbolic enemies based on dubious claims of having such weapons may well serve US short term interests, however it may also create self-fulfilling prophecies which in the long term may have devastating material effects. By creating imagined enemies, accusing them of developing CBW violations and attacking them on that basis, the US winds up making real enemies.

Dan McGee is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in Communications Research and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently working on his dissertation on media representations of emerging infectious diseases and biological warfare. Dan enjoys procrastinating by working on cool old cars that go fast. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1998 by Dan McGee. All rights reserved.