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November 6, 2001

A public radio commentary

Although anthrax seems a new, high tech weapon of terror, the history of biological weapons goes back to the beginning of time.

So repellent were these practices that the Romans forbade their use in their "Law of Nations." Yet, of course, the practice continued. As a 20th century biowarrier put it, "If it's important enough to be included in a treaty, it must be worth having in your arsenal."

In the 14th century plague-ridden corpses of Tartar soldiers were catapulted over walls of besieged cities. In the 16th century Germans burned shredded hooves and horns to make toxic clouds. And in the 18th century, during the French and Indian Wars, a British commander gave smallpox infested blankets to native Americans.

The potency of biological weapons has increased in our century because of the astonishing growth of molecular biology. Consider anthrax.

In its natural form the disease usually infects sheep or cattle. It causes black lesions to develop, hence the name anthrax from the Greek for coal or carbon. What attracted the military to the anthrax bacterium was it hardiness. When not actively infecting an animal, it forms hard-shelled spores that survive in soil for at least eighty years. In fact, in World War Two, if Britain had bombed Berlin with anthrax, instead of explosives, the city would likely still be infected today.

Using a great deal of technique we've figured out how to take this naturally occurring bacterium and, in military parlance, weaponize it.

To make weapons' grade anthrax takes a great deal of expertise. It's size must be carefully controlled by coating the particles. This coating make the particles large enough to catch the wind and float, yet small enough to penetrate the natural defenses of our respiratory systems. It is this refined anthrax that is most terrifying: Once in this form it can be delivered by aerosol spray or crop-dusters.

While it may be tempting to blame technology for this terror, bear in mind that just as our molecular biology allows a highly advanced form of anthrax to be made, the same science has brought forth high-powered antibiotics and vaccines to combat the disease. As always the evil doesn't lie in the tool, it's where it always has been: inside human beings.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises