The novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease has opened the floodgates of shame and blame. This has been specifically aimed at politicians for their lack of preparation and insistence on spreading misinformation in the form of wishful thinking before changing their tune by acknowledging the true extent of the problem and ultimately pushing the panic button.
Across the globe, few leaders have been spared accusations of irresponsible discourse and political negligence. US President Donald Trump provided perhaps the most obvious example of a politician dismissing the threat before rallying the troops. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to be the most tragic example. Having contracted the coronavirus, his life may even be in danger as he has already spent three nights in intensive care.
How the US Government Failed to Prepare for a Pandemic
Trump has now lashed out at the World Health Organization (WHO), no doubt as a tactic to shift the blame elsewhere. His loyal public will understand that the WHO, as a part of the United Nations (an institution despised by his base), is guilty of having failed to shout its message loud enough for Trump to hear and process it in time.
With everyone focused on the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic while hoping and praying for a return to normal in the near future, many observers have been predicting that whatever normal looks like once the coronavirus nightmare has passed, it won’t be identical with the past. In the past week, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has been following both the speculation about a very different future for the affected nations and for the global economy as well as the opposite, the reflex that consists of denying any serious impact.
Some prognosticators have signaled a danger that goes beyond the effects of what some have called a “black swan event,” which is understood as a rare and unexpected occurrence that arrives with no logical cause. This global drama could bode something more sinister that stems from a perverse form of human logic. Politico recently asserted that the Trump administration’s continuing bungled response has “exposed just how unprepared the U.S. is for a threat many would-be Cassandras have been warning about for years: a targeted biological attack.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A conflict between one life form (microscopically small) with another life form — humanity — that has a macroscopically oversized and inflated belief in its capacity to understand the universe.
Indian media have been particularly thorough in covering the rumors and speculation about a possible link between COVID-19 and the preparation of biological warfare. India’s Economic Times recently reviewed seven conspiracy theories that have emerged. At a time when few governments had begun even to react, back on February 17, India Today produced a highly informative video that examined in careful detail the three main theories that alluded to a possible criminal origin of the contamination.
With Prime Minister Johnson in intensive care due to worsening conditions of his bout with COVID-19, the UK has repeated one suspicion mentioned by India Today in February to the effect that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. Johnson had been accused of a bungled response to the disaster. Is this similar to Trump’s tactic of shifting the blame elsewhere?
This new insistence on the theory that the origin of the contamination can be traced to a Wuhan laboratory doesn’t seem to be the result of any newly-released data. A senior official in the UK gave this explanation: “Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted.” When the explanation of what is presented as “a credible alternative” takes the form of a sentence beginning with “perhaps” and evoking the possibility of a lack of coincidence before terminating with the refusal to discount speculation, most readers will find it difficult to feel that the reasoning is on solid ground.
To be fair, the British have in the recent past witnessed Russian attempts to poison people with radioactive substances on their territory, but that kind of specific targeting can’t be compared to the effects of a global pandemic. In that attack, the victims were Russians and the acts, though carried out with sophisticated chemicals, were simple assassinations, routine practices for some nations.
As for settling the question of the actual source of COVID-19, Al Jazeera’s latest update on the question provides some non-polemical clarity on the most credible hypotheses. It demonstrates the futility of any nationalistic reflex seeking to blame another nation for what should be described as a global environmental catastrophe most likely due to someone’s accidental negligence. If the source can be identified and the conditions understood, such knowledge will be helpful to improve related practices in the future, but speculating about it to blame any nation makes sense only if there is a real suspicion of criminal intent.
COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerability of the entire population of modern nations to a natural rather than a politically motivated attack. A targeted attack by a nation or a terrorist organization could produce even worse results. Paradoxically, we should perhaps be grateful that the pandemic has allowed us to understand the nature and extent of our civilization’s vulnerability. One top health official in Texas cited in the Politico article highlighted one major contributing factor in the US: that “public health is largely invisible, underappreciated, and as a result underfunded.” A significant part of the answer, as the current crisis has shown, would be to have a single-payer system. But that appears to be against the principles of all Republicans and Democrats alike, with rare and well-known exceptions.
The US government must now be aware that an enemy seeking to understand how to disrupt the entire nation and cripple its economy for months on end has seen a foolproof demonstration of the potential for irreparable damage. No doubt Congress will take measures to ensure that in the future there will be masks, protective gear and ventilators for crises to come. But a penury of equipment is only part of the problem. It should now be obvious that because of the factor of contagion, the lack of universal health care constitutes a central aggravating factor.
In recent history, there have been three well-publicized events in which biological or chemical weapons were used against civilian populations. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush made a point of reminding the world that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against his own people. He was certain Saddam would do it again. He used this reasoning to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam, despite the lack of any evidence that those weapons still existed.
President Bush also carefully avoided mentioning what the journal Foreign Policy discovered in declassified documents of the CIA in 2013 concerning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in its war with Iran in the 1980s. It included “details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks.”
A second example is the series of reports of chemical attacks reported in Syria during the civil war that began in 2011 and still has not been resolved. Although there is some controversy about the facts and the responsibilities, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has just released a new report that blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for chemical attacks in 2017. In the case of Syria, Russia may have played a role similar to the US role in favor of Iraq in the 1980s.
The other notable incident — shrouded in mystery even at the moment it was buried by the FBI in 2010 — was an attack with a biological weapon inside the United States in 2001. Whoever engineered the anthrax attacks that followed in the wake of 9/11 designed what was clearly a criminal act to look like an act of war by a belligerent foreign government. The Bush administration hinted that it must have been Iraq. This was a year and a half before Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious presentation before the UN of fabricated “evidence” to justify the 2003 invasion.
The FBI quickly discovered that the origin of the anthrax attacks was domestic, a fact that could only disappoint the Bush administration. There was a simple reason why Iraq could not be blamed. Biological weapons have genetic signatures. The anthrax used to kill five Americans and terrify an already terrified nation could be genetically traced back to a US military laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Once that became clear, it became necessary to identify an unstable individual responsible for the crime — a Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray or Sirhan Sirhan. The formula had already proved to be effective on three crucial occasions. Identifying this type of individual opens up three possible explanations for the crime. Either the designated culprit didn’t commit the crime, he (it is never a she) was an actor in a plot with the conspirators, or he was a lone wolf saddled with personality problems that led him to commit a heinous act. The third possibility, perfectly adapted to the individualistic culture of the US, ensures that suspicions about other possible official motives will never be seriously pursued in the media.
FBI agents made a first attempt to accuse a man by the name of Steven Hatfill. After two years of harassing and intimidating the scientist, it became clear that Hatfill couldn’t have been the culprit. Over the next five years, they found a new candidate for the job, Bruce Ivins, a scientist specialized in anthrax who worked at Fort Detrick. By 2008, the FBI managed to push the psychologically fragile Ivins far enough for him to commit suicide months before a planned trial. This is a pattern that works fairly well in various scenarios where embarrassing facts concerning a government or prominent people might emerge. A recent example that is fresh in most people’s memories is Jeffrey Epstein, an American businessman accused of sex trafficking who committed suicide in prison while awaiting trial
In 2011, ProPublica, PBS and McClatchy conducted a thorough investigation of the anthrax case that the FBI had formally closed in 2010. They discovered new evidence that threw serious doubt on the FBI’s conclusion. In 2013, Wired returned to the case to express similar doubts, which it summarized in these words: “But there’s something much scarier to contemplate. There’s still the possibility that the government was as wrong about Ivins as it was about Hatfill. If that’s the case, the anthrax mailer is still at large. And that means someone launched the deadliest biological attack in the history of the United States—and got away with it.”
Curiously, both reports express concern that the real killer may still be at large without looking one step further: “There’s an irony in the fact that the culprit was likely a top government anthrax expert.” The three possibilities exist and are unresolved: Ivins may have been a patsy, he may have been the lone wolf killer or he may have been complicit in a plot. Wired mentions that “Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and one of the intended recipients of an anthrax letter, said he didn’t believe that Ivins had acted alone.” But no one in the media has raised the hypothesis that there may have been a plot, even though there was an obvious motive. The Bush administration at precisely that time was actively seeking ways to create the belief that Saddam Hussein would attack the US.
“The FBI didn’t wait for the outcome of those deliberations,” PBS reports. “In February 2010, with the panel still taking testimony, prosecutors announced that the case was closed, Ivins was the sole perpetrator.”
Case closed. But the broader question still looms today concerning governments that might initiate a targeted chemical or biological attack on a large or a small scale. There are only a few that may already have done so.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.