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1997

The Power of the Small

disruptive effects of small-scale biochemical terrorism

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What will be the next major disruptor of the way in which society is organized? The following note explores the dangers of small-scale biochemical terrorism. On a large-scale this has been endlessly discussed in terms of "weapons of mass destruction", but there is almost no discussion of its disruptive effect on the smallest scales. These may be more challening than mass destruction.

To show relevance, I will point to pieces in the last few days of the InternationalHerald Tribune:

Of course the Pentagon may just be using this as a means of getting more funds, but consider the implications of the following on a small scale:
  1. What is the biochemical equivalent of a letter bomb? It is a letter which anyone can receive on which a contact poison has been placed. Even if it is "only" a secretary who opens the letter, once infected, the contagion can easily spread to others in the office. What will this do to correspondence and all who depend on it? For more effect, consider an actual parcel containing a substance that can be released. And junk mail?
  2. Consider the ease with which dishes could be contaiminated in public restaurants by casual employees in the kitchen. How will this affect (international) receptions and meetings, and the many restaurant-based negotiations?
  3. Aerosol cans are an ideal distributor for some agents. People use them in public for hairsprays, asthma, etc. What could be achieved by a "suicide bomber", whether walking a street or committed to a major release of some such substance? Consider the sarin incident in Japan. How might that work in Jerusalem?
  4. Security checks, notably at airports and at entrances to certain facilities, are currently focussed on metal detection. Biochemical agents can be concealed in many more ways -- a person can simply be contagious. How will this affect people's willingness to travel or to attend events? How little effort would be required to permanently disrupt one parliamentary assembly -- and make it improbable that parliamentarians would be willing to risk attending another?
  5. How little effort would be required to distribute an agent from one person onto another in the street through casual contact? How would this affect people's willingness to use the streets and public walkways? Note that one of the risks currently reported in Dublin is muggings using a syringe purportedly filled with HIV contaminated blood.
  6. How much effort would be required to place contact poisons on car door handles? Or on front door, or office door, handles? How little effort would be required to render an exposed garden into a dangerous place? How would this affect people's attitudes?
  7. What would this potential do to any public gathering -- even of an association or a group assembly? "Disruptive" elements might take on a new significance. Such gatherings would just not be worth the risK. How could civil society then be managed?
  8. How much effort is required to contaminate a municipal water supply, a gas supply (agents would be effective before lighting), an air-conditioning system, or widely used consumer products (note recent scares on some supermarket products)? How would people be expected to respond?
  9. It is likely that activist pro-environment groups will use the opportunity to "free up" sites under threat from developers by disseminating suitable agents to render them uninhabitable and too expensive to de-contaminate. Biochemical interdiction -- or the threat of it -- will become a new strategy for such groups.
    These and other possibilities indicate how vulnerable individuals are in a society which has not even considered these threats in any meaningful way. It would be worth exploring how the very real threats of poisoning were handled in European Middle Age societies, in Arab cultures and in Far Eastern cultures.
    Of more relevance to issues of "information/society/governance" is the possible nature of  the reactive response, by individuals, groups and governments to was is potentially not a single source threat on any conventionally detectable scale:
    1. In the Middle Ages, food tasting was often a requirement for any person of importance
      -- implying a new form of "bodyguard"? Louis Farakhan's bodyguards brought in his personal bottle of Evian water at the Parliament of the World's Relgions in Chicago (1995), replacing that offered to participants.
    2. People will quickly switch to wearing gloves under almost all circumstances -- even to open a letter (somewhat as gloves are now used to handle sandwiches at counters -- for the opposite reason). But there will be a felt need to wear body coverings -- a "fashionable" equivalent to what troops wear. The Japanese proclivity for face-masks when suffering a cold, will become required. It will become dangerous to be encountered in public with what appears to be a cold -- recalling attitudes towards lepers. Who will want to accept coins or money from a stranger?
    3. It is possible that just as populations have been weaned away from public water supplies to bottled drinking water (of often lower quality) by dubious marketing, so a major opportunity will be seen in providing bottled air -- already available as "boosters" in some locations. Scare-mongering -- notably by security firms -- will therefore be to the financial advantage of distributors of these and related products and services.
    4. Government response will tend to be extreme and reactive, with room for  little subtlety. The public will expect "action" in areas where government has never been skilled at acting with any subtlety. This may be quite satisfactory to those of right-wing tendencies -- as with the consequences of the bomb scares in France. Beyond spurious arguments for "national security", advantage will be taken of new arguments for "biological security" to further particular causes insensitive to the interests of the disempowered. It is probable that right of movement will be severly restricted. Searches
      will become much more invasive -- especially  the invasive body search.
    5. Groups will tend to either set up biologically secure environments (building on current security systems) and/or migrate to isolated locations where they have greater control over their living/working environments. This will reinforce the tendency towards walled suburbs, but will require that these de-link from the surrounding systems in the case of water or gas supplies.
    6. Corporations will offer foodstuffs "guaranteed free of contaminants", raising issues already seen in the case of marketing of organic foodstuffs.
    7. Pharamaceutical corporations will be in their element -- controlling resources and skills to respond to such threats. A significant opportunity will be open to the most dubious, namely distribution of counter-actants -- to biochemical agents they may themselves arrange discretely to release! Who will be able to prove otherwise?
    8. There will be a massive move away from unmediated face-to-face contact and therefore almost total reliance on electronic communications. As AIDS has demonstrated with respect to safe-sex intercourse, "safe-communication" intercourse  will be seen to require some protective interface -- whether gloves, a plastic veil, a glass wall, or electronic distance. It is questionable whether cafes, pubs, discos and public eating places will survive except as high risk experiences for the daring -- like unsafe-sex.
    9. Mass meetings of any kind will tend to be prohibited or require special permission and expensive protection. Major events, like the Olympics, will tend to be "television only". This will have severe consequences for the economics of the conference and exhibition industries. It will ensure the cessation of political rallies and conventions.
    10. Tourism will tend to become a high risk experience, as Egypt has recently demonstrated. There will be tendency to offer guaranteed "safe experiences" in contained environments -- perhaps to the advantage of some isolated tourist locations. Airplanes and buses will be specially adapted and subject to a level of security beyond that currently practiced on El Al. Note that the threat of AIDS is already severely increasing the risk of events in some locations and continents -- especially given the dubious guarantees concerning infection via mosquito ("dirty syringes"?).
    11. Some  will seek to take advantage of biochemical technology to "deal with" unwelcome  people in their environment. Noisy neighbours? Bullies? Unwelcome groups? Intransigent decision-makers? The Middle Age traditions will be revived.
    12. One of the positive effects will be on certain forms of mugging and rape. Use of Middle Age poison rings as a protection against rape will emerge. Of course, these will also be used by muggers and rapists as a new form of intimidation.
    13. There will be a major increase in intimidation, whether of decision-makers in government, of corporations or groups able to offer ransom moneys, or of individuals. This will be exploited by organized crime but also by political and corporate "dirty-tricks" departments.
    14. The niceties of "sustainability" and "human rights" will tend to be de-prioritized -- perhaps to the advantage of the environment.
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