"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Historians joke that those who remember the past are also condemned to repeat it. On Dec. 28, 1984, President Ronald Reagan had a vision to eliminate nuclear terror from the skies of America. His vision was the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars.” Reagan said, “Through the SDI research program, I have called upon the great scientific talents of our country to turn to the cause of strengthening world peace by rendering ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete.”
The Great Communicator envisioned an umbrella in the sky that would protect America from nuclear missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative, with its estimated price tag of $50 billion to $100 billion in 1984 dollars, was never implemented. A major argument against SDI was that is violated the spirit, if not the exact terms, of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). By building a defensive system that made existing offensive systems obsolete, we would force the Soviet Union to generate a next generation of offensive weapons.
This same argument can be applied to the Bush administration’s strategic biodefense initiative. Unfortunately, the American scientific community is apparently too terrified to mention it. As a result, American science is now leading the way into the next global arms race in bioweapons.
No one talks much about ICBM attacks any more. It is beyond irony that 20 years later, our fear of nuclear attack is focused almost entirely on a low-tech dirty bomb generally depicted as a suitcase containing some plutonium and a couple of sticks of dynamite. The moral of the story is clear: Technology does not equal security. Yet here we go again. Last year President Bush ordained Project Bioshield to protect us from dangers yet to be identified. In 2005 the United States will begin in earnest to build the “Star Wars” technology for this strategic biodefense initiative. The same xenophobic faith-based agenda that propelled us into Iraq has led this administration to declare war on medical research. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Our country has never been attacked by biological agents. Yet the president has decreed “biodefense” to be America’s top R&D priority.
How did we get here? How did biodefense become the R&D priority No. 1 for the United States? Why are we pushing the envelope to create sixth-generation countermeasures when there is no evidence that terrorists have even second-generation bioweapons? The answer is that our president is convinced that the fate of the free world is balanced on a single vial of doomsday microbes. And, as we know, once George W. Bush has made a decision, there is no turning back. The tragic result is that America is conducting the wrong research for the wrong reasons on the wrong diseases.
But beneath the monumental waste of resources, something far more horrible has been created. By turning our immense R&D machine toward the development of “biodefense” systems, Bush has declared that America intends to unilaterally explore the bioweapons potential of every tool in our vast technology arsenal. Our president justifies himself as a wartime leader acting in defense of our country. But the bleak reality is that the world sees America in relentless pursuit of bioweapons technology. Their reasoning is simple and correct: It is not possible to create an ultra-sophisticated biodefense network without the offensive systems to test it. Given America’s isolationism and policy of preemptive warfare, those who fear us most will be compelled to compete. The result will be a new arms race ultimately dwarfing the nuclear horror of the Cold War.
The foundation for this new policy was presented in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, in which he said, “It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”
This policy, worthy of Dr. Strangelove himself, is cosmically circular. If, in fact, our enemies can manufacture biologicals so deadly that one vial will cause mass destruction, then a fail-safe defense is impossible. In a rational, fact-based world such a policy would be viewed as a ghastly mistake, a breakdown of logic. But our president uses his “gut” instead of logic … and he does not make mistakes. He has a pathologically uncomplicated vision that we are under attack by evildoers armed with the most sophisticated bioweapons imaginable. He knows that to be saved, our nation must be rendered “in-vial-ate,” and he has issued directives to make it so.
Billions of dollars have been consigned to convert our national borders into filtering systems capable of withstanding Class 4 biohazards and beyond. Bush demands that we prepare for everything from salmonella-based attacks on the nation’s salad bars to the release of genetically engineered Ebola virus in Grand Central Station. These policies are the emperor’s new clothes, and his arrogant certainty makes him impermeable to a reality check. In fact, no country has the capability to generate the advanced bioweapons we are frenetically devising countermeasures for. As for making America “in-vial-ate,” we can’t even keep thousands of illegal aliens, human beings substantially larger than microbes, from crossing our borders with impunity every week.
Bioweapons fill us with bottomless anxiety precisely because we can’t know what will be unleashed, what its symptoms will be, or how it will be disseminated: through the air, in our drinking water, in our food. We can’t know how fast it will spread or how it will kill. The molecular biology revolution has given humans the ability to move genes beyond their evolutionary borders. This has taken the theory of biowarfare into a whole new dimension, pulling national security analysts along with it. In the age of biotechnology, gaming bioterror attacks poses the same problem as defining infinity. You can always add one more zero to any number, and you can always add one more mutation to any organism’s genome. Without rational limits to these war games, we enter an endless maze of pure bioterror hysteria.
The full extent to which biodefense has infected our government’s thinking can only be appreciated by getting up close and personal with the entire federal R&D apparatus. Such a view was on display recently at a conference on federal biodefense held near Washington. At this meeting, it became clear that rational limits were definitely not on the agenda. The take-home message was that federal researchers have been ordered to make bioterror priority No. 1. Paranoid hallucination is now policy, forcing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to become a subcontractor to the Department of Homeland Security. The contract is called Project Bioshield, a $5.6 billion purchase order that converts the world’s premier medical research facility into a factory churning out countermeasures for an array of bio-hypotheticals. Other federal agencies, from DARPA to the EPA, have received similar marching orders. Even the USDA has been mandated to work on agro-terror. The astronomical budget numbers attached to these mandates have shaken the entire life sciences research community to its very foundation.
The presentations at last week’s federal biodefense meeting moved seamlessly to connect the dots between serious science and surreal scenarios. Lawrence Kerr, the assistant director for Homeland and National Security at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) summarized the president’s manifesto, “Biodefense for the 21st Century.”
The document is a case study in hubris, beginning with its “Pillars of Our Biodefense Program.” The pillar of “threat awareness” requires us to “anticipate and prepare for novel or genetically engineered biological threat agents.” Such a task would easily consume the entire federal R&D budget. But this is only the beginning. In a country where tens of millions lack basic health insurance, the White House offers us a comprehensive bioterror package that includes three initiatives: Biowatch, Biosense and Bioshield. Like Bioshield, the Biowatch and Biosense programs start with the assumption that the enemy has or will obtain highly advanced biological weapons of mass destruction. But when Kerr begins to discuss “dual-use biological research” the sense of a fantasy being carved into stone becomes overwhelming.
The enemy, it seems, may very well be us. The screen behind Kerr showed a collage of research publications in the world’s most prestigious journals: Americans pushing back the frontiers of science. But, with biodefense as priority No. 1, the message from the White House is that university researchers need to recognize that their work could pose a threat to public health or national security. The biological community, we are informed, lacks an ethos of security. Given that 36,000 people died from the flu last year while anthrax (from an unknown source) has claimed a grand total of five lives, one must wonder if the White House lacks an ethos of reality.
As the presentations continued, the dots became harder to connect. We will construct “immune buildings” that sample the air every two minutes (a quarter-million times a year) and respond to a single weaponized spore by unleashing laser-guided micromachines that spew synthetic antibodies. We will re-glaze Washington and New York City with window panes that change color upon contact with airborne bioterror agents. We will develop long-range sensors that can follow and analyze clouds to determine if they are filled with pathogens. We will nanofabricate self-cleaning surfaces capable of removing every last microorganism and virus particle. These are phantasmagorical juxtapositions for a nation already plagued by decaying infrastructure and an array of other problems awaiting even low-technology solutions. Can we justify the construction of “immune buildings” when many of our schools, highways and bridges are literally falling down? Should we be re-glazing office buildings with biosensor windows when millions live in substandard housing? Should we develop materials that decontaminate theoretical bioweapons when we cannot rid our environment of common but deadly pollutants?
Based on the mandate imposed by Bush’s “Biodefense for the 21st Century,” the answer is unequivocally yes. We will do it, and at any cost. Analysts estimate that NIH’s real budget will decrease by 6 percent over the next five years, except in biodefense, where it may continue to increase by as much as 20 percent a year. An NIH official informs us that “when faced with a threat, we must understand it down to the molecular level.” For those of us who are caught outside our “immune buildings” during an attack, that means Project Bioshield to the rescue. Biodefense research of the 21st century will give us elaborate strategies to triage victims on-site using portable gene scanners. First-responders will infuse us with the precise dose of vaccine to counter the enemy’s cocktail of toxins and pathogens. Meanwhile the hot zone will be analyzed by forensic scientists specially trained and equipped to deal with the scene of a bioweapons attack. Since we can’t touch surfaces contaminated with infectious agents, fluorescent laser scanners will project remote holographic reproductions of the original weapon, complete with fingerprints. Meanwhile, using breakthroughs in “synthetic biology,” the infectious agent itself will be reconstructed by computer simulation. Its genome will be fully sequenced in milliseconds and compared with a worldwide database that contains all known pathogens, their laboratories of origin, even the names of the scientists who developed them.
Back in the real world, we don’t even possess a system for X-raying the cargo of our commercial airplanes. Budget dollars will be found for these futuristic projects even though we can’t guarantee a sufficient stock of flu vaccine for our children and seniors. Blueprints already exist for the most sophisticated biomedical research laboratories on earth. We will build them to test our new “countermeasures” even as unfunded stem cell researchers flee the country to find laboratories to work in.
The Conference on Federal Biodefense had a take-home message of Orwellian majesty: Americans will finally get universal healthcare, but only if they are exposed to a bioterror attack.
This diversion of resources will inevitably delay cures for diseases that already afflict millions of our family members and friends each year. But this policy becomes even more insidious once we understand that the most probable attack scenarios involve biological agents available right here in the United States. The clear and present danger lies not with a tiny high-tech vial smuggled in from a clandestine genetic engineering facility but from the national paralysis that will ensue when a low-tech concoction sets off our frenetically overamped security apparatus. Using common household items and samples available literally underfoot, any motivated high school student could produce enough material to place the entire country on red alert. Every terrorist organization on the planet knows this. So it is irrationally paranoid for America to spend tens of billions of taxpayer dollars over the next decade in a futile attempt to make America’s borders “in-vial-ate.”
There is a surreal immorality at every level in the subversion of what could and should rightly be allocated toward medical research. The devastation caused by this cruel hoax will far exceed the dreams of even the most fanatical bioterrorist. Project Bioshield, the Homeland Security Biological Defense Test Bed and their ilk are — like so much of the Bush Doctrine — founded on denial and delusion. This administration is willing to imperil ts own citizens to provide the deceptive illusion of safety. But beyond this human tragedy — far, far beyond it — is the probability that our unilateral pursuit of the most advanced countermeasures will set off a new round of global bioweapons development. The result will be arsenals of unimaginable destructive capacity.
In his recent New York Times Magazine article, Ron Suskind describes a meeting with a senior advisor to Bush who considered Suskind to be “in the reality-based community.” This advisor went on to explain how things worked in the Bush White House. His bottom line: “We’re an Empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The title of this article is “Without a Doubt,” but the president’s biodefense policy shows the world nothing but doubt — doubt and bottomless fear. “Biodefense for the 21st Century” is driven by the single concept that America’s enemies have, or can obtain, technology every bit as powerful as ours. Rather than an empire that creates the world’s reality, our posture is supremely defensive and xenophobic.
9/11 gave Bush post-traumatic stress syndrome. His emotional disturbance is now setting America’s R&D policy for the future. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby millions may die, but not from the actions of others. This policy is the distillation of a scientifically ignorant man, isolated from the fundamental intellectual ideas of our time and haunted by ghosts. It’s Halloween in D.C., now and indefinitely. Terror, not terrorism, has become the transcendent issue of our time. It’s a season of hallucinatory landscapes, buzzwords chanted like magic spells above a multibillion-dollar cauldron where, in the name of national security, America is creating a genetically engineered witch’s brew to poison the planet.
More Alan H. Goldstein.
Kate Braverman publishes novels, short stories and essays.More Kate Braverman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)