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Crank Call


Published November 6, 2002 at 5:00 p.m.

In the excitement of the fall elections, did anyone notice how quickly the menace of Iraq disappeared? I don't mean the topic, but the actual threat, the "imminent danger" of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Democrat and Republican, friend and foe -- in the run-up to Tuesday's contests, everyone found time to shake hands and stop worrying about nerve gas.

It's no wonder. "Nerve gas" is just a euphemism for chemical weaponry, and we still produce most of it ourselves -- "biological cluster bombs," as reported last week by the Guardian of London, along with "anthrax and non-lethal weapons for use against hostile crowds." According to Malcolm Dando and Mark Wheelis, authors of a forthcoming paper in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United States military has all these things and more in research and development, in plain contravention of international law.

"There can be disagreement over whether what the U.S. is doing represents violations of [existing] treaties," Wheelis says dryly. "But what is happening is at least so close to the borderline as to be destabilizing."

Nicely put. "Destabilization" is a euphemism for lawlessness, hypocrisy and science without a leash. Dando and Wheelis are, respectively, a British professor of "peace studies" and an American microbiologist. Their report asserts that the U.S. is pursuing -- and thus ensuring -- "a breakdown in arms control" in order to work on its weapons plans in secret. These include the development of a strain of anthrax resistant to antibiotics and a new kind of cluster bomb, copied from an old Soviet model, designed to disperse chemical and biological agents in the atmosphere. All of them non-lethal, of course.

Keep in mind that "non-lethal" doesn't mean non-destructive, non-painful or non-criminal, and that "hostile crowds" aren't the same as armies in uniform. American military scientists are currently at work on "lasers that blind the enemy" and "microwave systems that cook the skin of human targets." Apparently, by means of "an invisible pulse of energy," propelled at the speed of light, you can "heat a person's skin to about 130 degrees in two seconds" without "lethalizing" anyone.

As to the various gases and spores, Dando remarks, "What happened in Moscow is a harbinger of what is to come. There is a revolution in life sciences which could be applied in a major way to warfare. It's an early example of the mess we may be creating."

May be creating? This is the Bush doctrine at work in the field, Manifest Destiny for the new millennium. While Saddam still rules with terrifying might, the Pentagon has enough time and money to erect "a bio-weapons plant from commercially available materials," just to prove that "terrorists" could do it, too, if they had the chance. Military tacticians, working with military scientists, think "laser beams have a number of potential applications and desirable attributes... They are impressed that laser guns can be 'tunable' either to stun or to kill." The United States, Dando concludes, "runs the very real danger of leading the world down a pathway that will greatly reduce the security of all."

As far as I know, the Dando-Wheelis report has received no coverage in the American press. If it has, there hasn't been much. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate told the BBC last week that there was nothing to worry about. "We have lawyers who are experts," this person explained, "and they tell us right away if something is a technology they should or should not be looking at. We don't have to go to a higher entity -- they keep us honest."

My guess is the Pentagon's lawyers are as honest as Enron's accountants, only with less paperwork.

Meantime, India, a nuclear power, has joined the United States in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on reducing global warming. We, in turn, have joined OPEC nations in opposing the imposition of timetables for the adoption of renewable energy resources. Two billion people around the world are expected to live without clean water or basic sanitation by 2015. Twenty-three percent of the world's cropland, pasture, forest and woodland has been lost since the 1950s, and one-third of all "terrestrial biodiversity" -- that is, "life" -- is squeezed onto 1.4 percent of the Earth's surface.

But why be bleak? A happy side effect of military science is the development of sandwiches "that can stay moist and tasty without refrigeration for three years." So far they come in only two kinds, pepperoni and barbecued chicken, but they'll "last a minimum of three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, six months at 100 degrees Fahrenheit," according to Jerry Darsch, director of the Pent-agon's "feeding program."

"They will travel to the swampiest swamp, the highest mountain, the most arid desert," Darsch declares -- like President Bush, he must keep a bust of Churchill on his desk. He's having trouble getting peanut butter and jelly on the menu, all the same. The jelly's OK, "but the peanut butter sucks moisture from the bread, causing bacteria to multiply."

Leave it to Darsch: If we can just get the Iraqis to like Skippy and Jif, we could wipe 'em out in a week.

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