Thursday, December 30, 2004

What if it wasn't "just another lie"?

Sunday (1/2/05) the Fear Monger's cable channel, FX, will broadcast a 2002 BBC "docudrama" about a fictional smallpox epidemic. Ross at Public Health Press has the details in an excellent summary. Whether or not you watch it, here is something to think about:

It was an open secret in the public health community that prior to the onset of the war (and even preceding 9/11) Cheney's office was pressuring reluctant public health experts to get moving on a smallpox vaccination program. Did Cheney really believe Saddam might have the smallpox virus or was this (as widely assumed) another lie to coax us into a war? If he lied, nothing much changes. If, on the other hand, he and the DoD vulcans thought this was a real possibility, the picture is quite horrifying. For as much as a lying Cheney could be considered just another lying bastard in a den of lying bastards, a believing Cheney would be a monster whose recklessness goes beyond what even his most aggressive critics allow.

Here's why. Knowledgeable public health experts knew that smallpox vaccination could not be deployed quickly and widely enough, even in the United States, to stop the rapid spread of a highly contagious disease - a disease that kills one third of its victims and leaves 60 – 90% of those “lucky” enough to survive blinded or horribly disfigured. But the evil kernel of the policy is that the Administration was indifferent to the obvious fact that smallpox would not stop at our borders or even arrive here first. This plague, against which the human species is no longer protected by prior exposure or vaccination, would have spread around the globe like a supersized tsunami, possibly killing more than a billion people. Those most likely to die would be those unprotected by vaccination, i.e., the world's poor and those for whom a live virus vaccine is too dangerous because their immune systems are compromised. Thus the poor in HIV-ravaged Africa and Asia would have been left to the mercy of a killer that shows no mercy.

The smallpox “plan” grew out of concern that Saddam would invoke the so-called “Samson option,” whereby an attack he knows has no other purpose than to eliminate him would push him to take the temple down around everyone’s ears. The Administration seems to have concluded that if there were sufficient vaccine to protect the American military and some of its population, that was sufficienct. No significance seems to have been given to the global devastation even a “limited” military action could unleash. Even a nuclear exchange might pale in comparison to what could happen if smallpox was loosed on the planet again. If Cheney wasn't lying, it means the Bush-Cheney Administration was willing to take the chance of poking the hornet's nest with a sharp stick. Fortunately there were no hornet's within.

A crime against humanity may not be easy to define, but provoking a global smallpox epidemic would certainly qualify. Unfortunately many of us wouldn't have lived to see the trial.