You look at the pictures and you see bloody people sitting on chairs or trying to make phone calls in a wrecked building. You read the stories and you find that terrorists have attacked again, this time with bombs, killing at least 34 people at an international airport and a subway station in Brussels.
The Islamic State is saying it did it and you are meanwhile thinking of Paris, of San Bernardino, of al-Qaida on 9/11, of what might come next and then, maybe, of a warning in an October 2015 report by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
In it, the panel said biological attacks are a massive terrorist horror we haven’t been hit with so far but that will almost surely come our way and that we are not prepared for. How bad could one be? According to what the National Security Council once said, the risk could be hundreds of thousands of lives and a cost of maybe $1 trillion.
Those numbers are reported in a New York Times account in which experts also stress how simple it is to put together powerful bioweapons and how easy it is to sneak them wherever you wanted them and to set them off. What hasn’t been as simple or easy is getting an urgent, focused, synchronized effort enabling us to “rapidly recognize, respond and recover from a biological attack,” said one of two 2010 reports cited by the Times.
The more recent Blue Ribbon study, led by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, the first director of the Department of Homeland Security, makes clear those reports weren’t much heeded, noting that the $6 billion a year we spend on the issue isn’t getting us where we need to go.
Among its recommendations for prevention, detection and containment, the report said it would be nice if all the federal agencies, states, localities, medical researchers and others weren’t going in a host of different directions. It called for White House leadership from the vice president’s office and such other approaches as having different federal agency groups work together far more tightly.
It talked of ways in which vaccines, antibiotics and other counter-measures could be developed and the medicines stockpiled in greater numbers. When we’re hit, we have to immediately help the victims and do as much as possible to keep them from spreading whatever it is that’s imperiling us.
In a Senate hearing on all of this and more, Lieberman observed that the Islamic State had announced its intentions to use bioweapons against the United States someday, and that brings us back to what happened in Brussels, the Belgian capital that harbors the European Union and NATO headquarters.
The killings there were once again evidence that the Islamic State follows through on its promises, and the immediate criticism of Belgium is that it was unprepared. On the question of bioterrorism, we must not be. It’s not that we have done nothing about biodefense, but that we haven’t begun marching forcefully enough in the way wise hands have repeatedly told us we should.
The government needs to get going, especially noting the words of Ridge, the co-chairman of this report, as quoted in a discussion of its content:
“Our world is threatened more so than ever today by terrorist groups like ISIS, who can create undetectable immediate threats. Our government is delusional to think we can get by without a strong biodefense policy.”
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Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected].