Saturday, December 06, 2008

Once in every generation...

Stephen King wrote his greatest masterpiece, The Stand, after hearing a radio preacher ranting, "once in every generation the plague will fall among them!" This phrase struck him as so creepy that he typed it out and hung it above his typewriter as inspiration. In the novel he places those exact words in the mouth of his prophetess, Abagail Freemantle. Once in every generation...
The other day, I posted a link and some quotes from Tom Peters' blog in which he discusses the new, foreboding World at Risk report of WMDs and bioterrorism. Today I saw the follow-up at the Anderson Cooper 360 blog, in which AC recommends the following book:

For a sense of what that would mean take a look at The Great Influenza, a powerful book about the epidemic of 1918 which killed 20 to 40 million people worldwide. In excruciating detail author John Barry writes about the disease and what it wrought. Then imagine something like that in our world.

Both the Stephen King quote and the AC360 blog post seem very prescient, particularly when I think of my particular family. see, my dad was born in 1919 during that pandemic that AC mentioned as killing 20-40 million people. For reference purposes, at that time there were just over 100 million people in the United States. Twenty some-odd years later, my oldest brother was born - during the 1951 flu pandemic, which some researchers figure was worse than the 1919 flu. I come from a large-ish family - five brothers, of which I am the youngest, having been born in 1969. Incidently, 1969 was during the third major flu pandemic of the century.
Being Presbyterian, we are strong believers in providence. God takes care of his people. But being southern and American, we also have this deep appreciation for the old axiom that 'God takes care of those who take care of themselves.' (Not a Biblical quote, rather a quote from Ben Franklin's 1757 Poor Richard's Alminack.)
Anyway, I'm interested in what can we do to help ourselves in the face of this impending health and infrastructure crisis, other than the tips I've posted on before. What do y'all think?


  1. Fortunately we have a new group in charge in Washington. I know that not many guys in Mississippi voted for Obama but I am hopeful that Mississippi will receive a fair share of the "Change" that comes blowing out of D.C. this next year. Here is a transcript of the President elect's remarks from earlier today:

    Remarks of President-elect Barack Obama
    Radio Address on the Economy
    Saturday, December 6, 2008
    Good morning.

    Yesterday, we received another painful reminder of the serious economic challenge our country is facing when we learned that 533,000 jobs were lost in November alone, the single worst month of job loss in over three decades. That puts the total number of jobs lost in this recession at nearly 2 million.

    But this isn’t about numbers. It’s about each of the families those numbers represent. It’s about the rising unease and frustration that so many of you are feeling during this holiday season. Will you be able to put your kids through college? Will you be able to afford health care? Will you be able to retire with dignity and security? Will your job or your husband’s job or your daughter’s or son's job be the next one cut?

    These are the questions that keep so many Americans awake at night. But it is not the first time these questions have been asked. We have faced difficult times before, times when our economic destiny seemed to be slipping out of our hands. And at each moment, we have risen to meet the challenge, as one people united by a sense of common purpose. And I know that Americans can rise to the moment once again.

    But we need action – and action now. That is why I have asked my economic team to develop an economic recovery plan for both Wall Street and Main Street that will help save or create at least two and a half million jobs, while rebuilding our infrastructure, improving our schools, reducing our dependence on oil, and saving billions of dollars.

    We won’t do it the old Washington way. We won’t just throw money at the problem. We’ll measure progress by the reforms we make and the results we achieve -- by the jobs we create, by the energy we save, by whether America is more competitive in the world.

    Today, I am announcing a few key parts of my plan. First, we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.

    Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.

    Third, my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen. We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools.

    As we renew our schools and highways, we’ll also renew our information superhighway. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.

    In addition to connecting our libraries and schools to the internet, we must also ensure that our hospitals are connected to each other through the internet. That is why the economic recovery plan I’m proposing will help modernize our health care system – and that won’t just save jobs, it will save lives. We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year.

    These are a few parts of the economic recovery plan that I will be rolling out in the coming weeks. When Congress reconvenes in January, I look forward to working with them to pass a plan immediately. We need to act with the urgency this moment demands to save or create at least two and a half million jobs so that the nearly two million Americans who’ve lost them know that they have a future. And that’s exactly what I intend to do as President of the United States.

    Thanks for listening.

  2. Well, banks for one, are required to formally plan for disater recovery in general, and pandemics in particular. I was part of a study last year that 2300 businesses in the financial sector took part in to guage the potential impact of a pandemic. So as far as that chunk of infrastructure, we're at least preparING.
    The more volatile variable would be the stock market, and that would have tons of trickle-down effects.

    Of more concern to me is what we can do personally, to protect ourselves and our families. Somehow it does not seem like hand-washing and vitamin C (and economic plans for that matter) will be enough to help against a pandemic of that magnitude. Although I'm not sure what else we can do, either. As you alluded to, God is sovereign. Ultimately I have to trust Him, but I agree that He expects us to use the sense He gave us as well.
    By my reckoning, "Self defense" encompasses more than just defending yourself against a mugger or bully. Preparing for pandemics, possible job losses, and the like are just as important as training for the outside chance you get attacked with a rubber knife. Probably more so.
    I think I'll start by doing what I can now: stockpiling canned goods, not just for the eventual run on the shelves, but also to limit my time among other (potentially contagious) people. Saving more money, in the event it becomes preferable to quit my job and stay home rather than risk exposure to a super-flu. And yes, washing my hands more and getting more vitamin C.

  3. don't know if i've posted this link in my last couple of posts on disaster prep. It is a pretty good list...

    Also, if you are interested in vitimin C, etc... you might look into how to grow and use your own echinacea.

  4. Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst. His most recent book is "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."

    Peter Bergen says terrorist attempts to use WMDs have proven to be relatively ineffective.

    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The congressionally authorized Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism issued a report this week that concluded: "It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

    The findings of this report received considerable ink in The New York Times and The Washington Post and plenty of airtime on networks around the world, including on CNN. And the day the report was released Vice President-elect Joseph Biden was briefed on its contents.

    So is the sky falling?

    Not really. Terrorists have already used weapons of mass destruction in the past decade in attacks around the world, and they have proven to be something of a dud.

    In the fall of 2001, the anthrax attacks in the United States that targeted politicians and journalists caused considerable panic but did not lead to many deaths. Five people were killed.

    The alleged author of that attack, Bruce E. Ivins, was one of the leading biological weapons researchers in the United States. Even this brilliant scientist could only "weaponize" anthrax to the point that it killed a handful of people. Imagine then how difficult it would be for the average terrorist, or even the above-average terrorist, to replicate such efforts.

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    Similarly, the bizarre Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which recruited leading scientists and had hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, embarked on a large-scale WMD program in the early 1990s in which cult members experimented with anthrax and invested in land in Australia to mine uranium.

    In the end, Aum found biological and nuclear attacks too complex to organize and settled instead on a chemical weapons operation, setting off sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 commuters. It is hard to imagine a place better suited to killing a lot of people than the jam-packed Tokyo subway, yet the death toll turned out to be small in Aum's chemical weapons assault.

    More recently, in 2006 and 2007 al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate laced several of its bombs with chlorine. Those attacks sickened hundreds of Iraqis, but victims who died in the assaults did so more from the blast of the bombs than because of inhaling chlorine. Al Qaeda stopped using chlorine in its bombs in Iraq more than a year ago.

    There is a semantic problem in any discussion of WMDs because the ominous term ''Weapons of Mass Destruction'' is something of a misnomer. In the popular imagination, chemical, biological and nuclear devices are all weapons of mass destruction. In fact, there is only one weapon of mass destruction that can kill tens or hundreds of thousands and that is a nuclear device.

    So the real question is: Can terrorists deploy nuclear weapons any time in the next five years or even further in the future? To do so, terrorists would have one of four options: to buy, steal, develop or be given a nuclear weapon.

    But none of those scenarios are remotely realistic outside the world of Hollywood.

    To understand how complex it is to develop a nuclear weapon, it is worth recalling that Saddam Hussein put tens of millions of dollars into his nuclear program with no success.

    Iran, which has had a nuclear program for almost two decades, is still years away from developing a nuclear bomb. Terrorist groups simply don't have the massive resources of states, and so the notion that they could develop their own, even crude, nuclear weapons is fanciful.

    Well, what about terrorists being given nukes? Preventing this was one of the underlying rationales of the push to topple Hussein in 2003. This does not pass the laugh test. Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the leading U.S. terrorism experts in a book published this year, "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?," points out that there are two reasons this is quite unlikely.

    First, governments are not about to hand over their crown jewels to organizations that are "not entirely under state control and whose reliability is not certain." Second, "giving them a nuclear weapon almost certainly exposes the state sponsor to retaliation."

    For the same reason that states won't give nukes to terrorists, they also won't sell them either, which leaves the option of stealing a nuclear weapon. But that is similarly unlikely because nuclear-armed governments, including Pakistan, are pretty careful about the security measures they place around their most valued weapons.

    None of this of course is to suggest that al Qaeda is not interested in deploying nuclear devices. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly bloviated about the necessity of nuking the West and have even implied that they have the capability to do so.

    This is nonsense.

    Yes, in the mid-1990s when Al Qaeda was based in Sudan, members of the group tried to buy highly enriched uranium suitable for a nuke, but the deal did not go through. And it is certainly the case that a year or so before 9/11, bin Laden was meeting with veterans of Pakistan's nuclear program to discuss how al Qaeda might get into the nuclear weapons business.

    But all of this was aspirational, not operational. There is not a shred of evidence that any of this got beyond the talking stage.

    In 2002, former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright undertook a careful study of al Qaeda's nuclear research program and concluded it was virtually impossible for al Qaeda to have acquired any type of nuclear weapon.

    However, there is plenty of evidence that the group has experimented with crude chemical and biological weapons, and also attempted to acquire radioactive materials suitable for a "dirty" bomb, a device that marries conventional explosives to radioactive materials.

    But even if al Qaeda successfully deployed a crude chemical, biological or radiological weapon these would not be weapons of mass destruction that killed thousands. Instead, these would be weapons of mass disruption, whose principal effect would be panic -- not mass casualties.

    So if not WMDs, what will terrorists use in their attacks over the next five years?

    Small-bore chemical, biological and radiological attacks are all quite probable, but those attacks would kill scores, not thousands.

    What we are likely to see again and again are the tried and tested tactics that terrorists have used for decades:

    The first vehicle bomb blew up on Wall Street in 1920 detonated by an Italian-American anarchist. Since then, the car/truck bomb has been reliably deployed by terrorists thousands of times.

    Assassinations, such as the one that killed Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking one of the bloodiest wars in history.

    Hijackings, such as those that inaugurated the worst terrorist attack in history on 9/11.

    Guys armed with AK-47s intent on murder and mayhem as we saw in Mumbai, India, brought one of the world's largest countries to a standstill and generated continuous news coverage around the globe for 60 hours.

    Why go the deeply uncertain, and enormously complex and expensive WMD route when other methods have proved so successful in getting attention for terrorists in the past?

    The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism makes all sorts of sensible recommendations. Among them is creating a WMD adviser in the White House who would coordinate all the issues of WMD proliferation and terrorism, something the Obama administration would do well to implement. Right now, responsibility for this important job is diffused over numerous agencies, from the Department of Energy to the Pentagon.

    But the report's overall conclusion that WMD terrorism is likely to happen "somewhere in the world" in the next five years is simultaneously stating the obvious -- because terrorists already have engaged in crude chemical and biological weapons attacks -- but also highly unlikely because deploying true WMDs remains beyond the capabilities of terrorist groups today and for the foreseeable future.

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.


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