In Case of Emergency, Read This Blog

In Case Of Emergency, Read Blog

A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

As “WMD” Bill Is Introduced And Terror Suspect Is Indicted For Conspiracy To Use “WMD,” Does The Term “WMD” Need To Be Clarified For Public?

September 25th, 2009 · No Comments

U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) said earlier this month he agreed with the findings of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism that a biological attack on the nation is more likely than a nuclear attack.

Lieberman and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a bill that would implement many of the extensive recommendations of the commission’s report, World at Risk. “The mental images of mushroom clouds and nuclear blasts are powerful and frightening,” Lieberman said. “But as the Graham -Talent Commission rightly notes, the more likely terrorist threat is from a biological weapon,”

While there is some debate among experts on which weapon of mass destruction, biological or nuclear, is more likely (and which is the more serious threat), there is general agreement that both would be very serious and  would probably be much worse than the other two threats — chemical and radiological — that are usually included in the term’ WMD’ (including by the Commission itself). Yet, as the Commission itself reports, the latter two are not weapons of mass destruction in the same category as the first two. It’s not that chemical or radiological attacks would not kill ‘mass’ numbers of people, but the potential magnitude is much different.

The question of ‘WMD’ nomenclature came up yesterday with the indictment of Najibullah Zazi for conspiring to use “weapons of mass destruction” in connection with a terror plot, news reports say, to set off explosives here in New York City along the lines of the July 2005 bus attacks on London’s subway and bus system. Those bombings were horrific; 56 people were killed and many more people could have died. But the scope of casualties from a ‘traditional’ explosives is likely not be at the level of what potentially could happen in a biological or nuclear incident. I would guess that there was probably some confusion among the public upon hearing Zazi’s bombing plot being characterized in the indictment as a “weapon of mass destruction.”

In a post after the WMD Commission released its report, I argued that the term ‘WMD’ should be redefined and why I think it matters and isn’t just semantics. An excerpt is below:

In its report, the WMD Commission argues that the incoming Administration should make an effort to inform and engage the public on the subject of WMD’s. I agree. And, I suggest officials consider starting that process by defining (or redefining) what a WMD actually is. At present, it is most common to define a WMD for the public as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (or “CBRN”) weapon.

The Commission report, however, focuses primarily on the dangers of biological and nuclear terrorism, both of which could be absolutely catastrophic. By contrast, a chemical or radiological (better known as a ‘dirty bomb’) weapon could be very serious but would likely not cause as much lasting damage. In fact, both a chemical and radiological attack would likely be a one-shot event seriously impacting those directly near the event, closer in result to a ‘traditional’ terrorist bombing. A nuclear bomb or biological incident, however, could have wide and long-lasting ‘mass destruction’ impact to humans, property and the society itself.

As the report’s Executive Summary explains:

“While the mandate of the Commission was to examine the full sweep of the challenges posed by the nexus of terrorist activity and the proliferation of all forms of WMD-chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear-we concluded early in our deliberations that this report should focus solely on the two types of WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers: biological and nuclear weapons.”

When I speak to experts, they tend to divide nuclear and biological from chemical and radiological. I believe they should be communicating that dichotomy to the public. In fact, I believe that a vital part of educating and engaging citizenry on terrorism is giving them a more precise sense of potential terror weapons. It turns out that some of those threats are actually not as scary the more you know about them. But the time to tell people is before an incident not during it. That’s important because it allows policymakers and responders to focus time, money and public attention on the most dangerous threats.

The Obama Administration has taken the advice of the Commission and will appoint a WMD Czar, Gary Samore. I would hope that one aspect of his job is public education — and that defining (or redefining) what exactly WMD’s are is part of that effort.

Obviously, what we call these weapons is far less important than to preventing their use. But words do matter particularly on these sensitive, serious matters. And, therefore, I do think that better defining WMD’s for the public is something worth taking up.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • Technorati

Tags: Biological Terrorism · Nuclear Terrorism · Preparedness Ideas

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment