Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Winter of Our Discontent
It's a beautiful autumn day out my Wisconsin window, golden sunlight and infinitely blue skies. We've got as much color as we're getting this year, and every sidewalk and street crunches with the fallen leaves. We know, of course, that this is the way the world works--a few days, maybe a week, of fragile beauty before winter wins the battle, as it always does. Nevertheless, the simple fact that life provides us with days like these makes the possibility of decline and death seem slightly absurd.

But at the same time, this time, we seem to be heading for a winter that looks particularly dark: inflation at its highest levels in 15 years, home heating costs to soar (in Wisconsin, we're bracing for prices 61 percent higher than last year), the threat of bird flu, and the fates of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Tom DeLay, and Harriet Miers likely to ratchet up the level of partisan warfare beyond anything we've seen to date.

And who knows what else we might be dealing with before spring comes again? Salon is reporting this morning that there's evidence that Washington was the target of a biological attack late last month. On the same day thousands of antiwar protesters were marching on the National Mall, bioweapons sensors scattered at various points throughout the city picked up trace amounts of the bacteria that causes tularemia--amounts that are difficult to explain away either as sensor malfunctions or natural occurrences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control dragged its feet on reporting the incident to public health officials nationwide, and is sticking to a story that the findings were due to soil containing the bacteria that was stirred up by dry weather. That's the way tularemia outbreaks have happened before, but that was in rural areas. It's less likely for an outbreak to happen that way in a city. What we know of what happened in Washington so far conforms to a likely bioterror scenario--hit a large city during an event that brings lots of people to town from across the country, then wait for the disease to spread.

One of the scariest bits in the article is the suggestion by one expert that what the sensors picked up could have been a terrorist's test, in preparation for another attack later. Scarier still is the slow response by the CDC, which, to be fair, isn't entirely the agency's fault. A large-scale biological attack would require several days before public-health officials in various places across the country could put the pieces together and figure out what had happened. A smaller incident, like this one, simply takes longer to identify. Unfortunately, any time that's lost, especially in a large-scale attack, equals lives lost, and lives lost equal public anger, outrage, panic--all things that can (and, inevitably, will) get in the way of effective response.

Scariest of all is the knowledge that it would be up to the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate that response. Given the agency's track record on stuff we can forecast and understand, and which are confined to a relatively small area, like a hurricane, it's hard to be optimistic when contemplating their likely response to something as unpredictable as a large-scale biological attack.

And don't get me started on bird flu.

Yes, it's quite a lovely morning, the sort of day we cherish each October. But there's darkness in the distance.

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