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Jewish World Review August 29, 2003 / 1 Elul, 5763

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Facing the other threat among us | Thomas Edison must be spinning in his grave. Apparently, the Great Blackout of 2003 was triggered by a transmission line sagging into a tree. How's that for a fragile electrical grid? For the better part of two days, the news media flashed images of hundreds of thousands of people coping with darkness and no electricity. It hardly bears thinking what the terrorists will be concluding--but thinking is what we urgently must do about the way our interconnectedness has made our society so vulnerable to terror and accident.

Electricity is just the most dramatic example. Easily purchased grenade launchers could take out power stations or high-voltage transmission lines, creating a domino effect over hundreds of square miles. A hacker cyberassault could do the same thing. Gas pipelines running near or through major urban areas have huge explosive potential. Our water supplies are exposed. These networks serve us so well precisely because they are interconnected, one area absorbing the overload from another. But this is what makes millions of us concentrated in geographic clusters so vulnerable to interruptions that, just a few years ago, would have affected only thousands or hundreds. After 9/11, we were assured that steps would be taken to increase security at power stations--but what about the thousands of transmission lines and substations? All the king's men cannot provide enough round-the-clock protection for them.

Reverberations. The tragedy is that the very science and technology that have enriched civilized life have also put more potent tools in the hands of evildoers. In a single strike, terrorists can wreak havoc costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. It is the terrorist equivalent of jujitsu, in which our urban concentration and our strengths in technology can be directed against us. The result is a chilling transformation in the killers-to-killed ratio.

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This jujitsu effect is multiplied by its endless electronic reverberation. The instantaneous transmission by nonstop television, along with talk radio and the Internet, stimulates millions to emotions of disbelief, anger, fear, and hatred. Think what this could do to our national sense of security and safety--never mind the stock markets! No wonder terrorists will seek out targets that attract the most intense media attention.

A recent book, Our Final Hour by Sir Martin Rees, the royal astronomer of the United Kingdom and one of the true wise men of science, warns how terror and error might well threaten our future in this century. Like other experts, Sir Martin underscores the potential of ordinary citizens to wield destructive power that once was limited to those who held the reins of power in states with nuclear weapons. "One person's act of irrationality, or even one person's error," Sir Martin says, "could do us all in. . . . The danger comes not just from a network of al Qaeda-type terrorists, but from a fanatic or social misfit with the mind-set of those who now design computer viruses. . . . Even one could well be too many."

Sir Martin focuses on the fact that bioterror or bioerror could kill a million people in one disastrous accident that might create or release a fast-spreading pathogen. Such destructive power is easily accessible to private individuals since dual-use facilities outfitted with modest, easily operable equipment may now be found in hospital labs, agricultural research institutes, and peaceful factories almost everywhere.

The conclusion? "The odds are no better than fifty-fifty," Sir Martin says, "that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century." Let's repeat that: no better than fifty-fifty. But what can we do to stop one disaffected loner? Restrict research? Make research more transparent? Monitor those who carry it on, including everyone who may want Ph.D.'s in microbiology? Is there any way for high-risk individuals to be reliably identified?

The questions raise delicate issues: the rights of unimpeded science, the rights of privacy. Against them now we must set the very right to survive. Can we, in this vulnerable new world, where evil runs rampant, live forever relying on the good sense of millions of individual biologists?

Up until the 20th century, the greatest catastrophes were natural disasters--famine, floods, and earthquakes. In the last century, more people died in war or were murdered by totalitarian regimes. In the 21st century, the risk is the perversion of knowledge. We cannot go on any longer avoiding the fact that the downside of science and technology, especially from bioerror or bioterror from both microbiology and genetics, can kill us all. Just what are we going to do?

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman