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The Growing Threat of Biological Weapons

The terrorist threat is very real, and it's about to get worse. Scientists should concern themselves before it's too late

Steven Block

For half a century, America has participated with the world's nuclear powers in an uneasy standoff of mutually assured destruction. Despite the seemingly relentless proliferation of nuclear arms, there's reason to hope that some version of the current stalemate will continue to hold. Against this backdrop, terrorist factions and "nations of concern" (the current government euphemism for rogue states) have sought ways to leverage their chances. In the jargon of the day, they seek a means to wage "asymmetric warfare" against a more powerful, nuclear-capable adversary. Asymmetric warfare concentrates on the use of unconventional (and affordable) weapons and tactics, ranging from traditional guerrilla fighting to the deployment of new weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, the supremacy in conventional weaponry established by the U.S.—and demonstrated to lethal effect during the 1991 Gulf War—has made asymmetric warfare all the more attractive. Figuring prominently in the arsenal of asymmetric warfare are both biological and chemical weapons. Although it may be something of a misnomer to label most current forms of these agents as "weapons of mass destruction," their power is nevertheless considerable. Worse still, it is now increasing, and these weapons are emerging as a serious threat to peace in the 21st century. Here I explore the historical development and use of biological weapons, as well as some recent trends in their evolution and the prospects for containing their proliferation.

Figure 1. Biohazard suitsClick to Enlarge Image

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