“Bioweapons.” The very word gives people shivers which crawl down their spine like a thousand ants. It is a word that is equated with “nuclear holocaust” in people’s minds right next to a picture of what they believe the end of the world will look like. Perhaps even more omnious than the name “bioweapons” is “bioterrorism.” This word implies actions outside of authority. Governments are held back from unleashing these weapon and publicly researching new “defensive” weapons by the public outcry against the chain effect that might begin once countries begin lobbing anthrax and smallpox at each other. Indeed, if a war of biological weapons did break out, the lives of the leaders of nations would also be at risk, yet another reason for policy makers around the world to advocate fire-bombing over bio-bombing or even advocate this little known thing called “peace.”
However, terrorists are willing to employ bioterrorism because they are not halted by public outrage or global condemnation. Their motives are simple, advance their agenda at any cost. Kill the enemy even if it means sacrificing a large sum of your own (which could easily happen if winds shifted after a bio-bombing and redirected the pathogens to where the attack originated).
But while “bioterrorism” may be one of the most feared words in our language, it has been practiced perhaps longer than any other form of warfare.
For those of the Christian or Jewish faith, the first recorded use of bioterrorism is recounted in the Old Testament with the plague of God that kills all of the first-born of Egypt in retaliation for Pharoh Ramses’ threat to kill the son of Moses. Since then, bioterrorism has taken several different forms. During the Middle Ages it was common practice for attacking armies to catapult rotting animal carcasses over the battlements to try to infect the defenders with whatever disease the carcass had, weakening the castle’s defenses so that they may be overpowered.
Hundreds of years later, in The French and Indian War, a British commander ordered the distribution of smallpox-infested blankets to several Native American tribes under the guise of a sign of good faith to end incessant fighting. The Native Americans, with no natural immunity, fell to this disease by the hundreds until these tribes were all but extinct. It must be noted here that these two instances should be considered acts of bioterror not biowarfare because these attacks were also aimed at women, children, and elder generations who were not a part of any fighting.
Like everything else, bioterrrorism has evolved in modern times. Today, instead of missiles with payloads of pathogens, the delivery system would most likely be a person who has injected themself with an untreatable and virulent strain of a disease that waits several days to maximize victim exposure. Spreading amongst the population for several days, the disease would spread from innocent bystander to bystander. Once the outbreak became widespread, panic would lead to even greater problems of controlling the situation. Most likely, the situation would eventually be quarantined, but not before a great loss of life.
There is one form of bioterror that is often overlooked. This form mainly occurs in African countries experiencing civil war. Here, in these war ravaged lands, if found outside the sanctuary of refugee camps a female may be gang-raped (sometimes in front of her village) so that she becomes an outsider and is shunned by her people in accordance with tradition or ancient laws. In these countries, rape is something even more heinous than in other countries such as the United States. Instead of the sympathy and help rape victims receive in most countries, these victims must fend for themselves and are sometimes even driven from their village. This is bioterrorism at its worst, using genetics to disgrace, harm, and possibly kill an innocent victim whose only crime was being born to the wrong tribe, in the wrong village, in one of the most impoverished regions in the world. According to the New York Times, this type of warfare is still being frequently used to destroy stability in the region. Recently in Somalia, a young women was stoned to death as an adulteress even after human right organizations claimed she had been raped.
The future of bioterrorism is a murky one mainly because we do not know what “defensive” weapons have been devised in a government lab that might one day find a way into the wrong hands. For now, our best bet is assume that sci-fi isn’t that far off in its portrayal of futuristic diseases. Perhaps there will be a disease that mutates those exposed into blood-craved monsters. Perhaps someone will develop a dirty bomb that will target only those with a specific genetic strain. Perhaps the threat will come from nature itself as we see an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant diseases emerge, and are faced with a mutated version of the bird flu capable of being transmitted from person to person through the air (many scientists now believe the 1918 influenza was caused by a flu virus that either jumped to humans from birds or pigs). Whatever the future holds, we must hope that our technology will be able to keep pace with and perhaps out stride whatever may threaten us in the future.