When Ted Koppel played "let's pretend" recently on ABC's "Nightline," he described a disastrous scenario: Terrorists had unleashed stocks of the deadly bacteria anthrax into the subway system of a major American city, killing thousands of people.
"The scenario we are showing you is fiction," Koppel intoned gravely. "The expectation that it will happen is real."
The "Nightline" set was transformed into a Strangeloveian war room for the five-part "Biowar" docudrama, complete with a streaming banner that tallied the "dead" in real time. By week's end, the toll stood at 50,000.
Koppel's point, of course, was that "Biowar" -- or something close to it -- is going to happen in America sooner or later. Cynics will say "Biowar" was nothing more than a ratings stunt; but if so, the "Nightline" producers sure know what turns on their audience. Over the last decade, terrorism has slowly been filling the vacuum in the public imagination that was created when the Soviets checked out of the Kremlin, leaving the long-occupied villain role up for grabs.
Terrorism has been on the front pages for much of this decade, especially in the past year -- from the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the FBI's decision in late July to ban tours of its headquarters building after Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden threatened to blow it up.
In a comprehensive public opinion poll conducted last year, respondents cited terrorism as the No. 1 danger the United States faces from abroad, followed closely by the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. An unscientific search of the Internet Movie Database indicates that even more films have been made about terrorists in the 1990s than there were about Soviet intrigue in the 1980s.
Experts disagree on whether an attack like the one "Nightline" depicted is likely. Optimists and doomsayers alike must draw their conclusions from the same swirling muck of fear, politics, pop culture and speculation that fuels the news media.
"The difficulty we have, with the possibility of terrorists using chemical or biological weapons, is we don't have a validated threat," explained RAND terrorism expert Richard Jenkins. "We don't have any evidence that any particular terrorist organization is planning to carry out an attack."
Former CIA Director John Deutch tried to put the threat in context: "The likelihood is high compared to a nuclear event, and high compared to the likelihood of general nuclear war during the Cold War, which was a catastrophic enough threat ... to shape our security architecture."
Right around the time "Biowar's" imaginary virus was claiming its first victims, I happened to be browsing through counterterrorism equipment at a conference sponsored by the Jane's Information Group. I peered at a startled-looking mannequin lying in an airtight decontamination stretcher. I compared auto-injecting syringes and fountain-
I spent the better part of an hour learning about a French-made hazmat (hazardous materials) suit from an energetic salesman. "Business must be good," I offered, looking at the variety of equipment his firm distributed -- mostly military gear customized for civilian use.
He responded that the United States has millions of potential "first responders," from police and fire personnel to emergency medical technicians: "Two to three years from now, our domestic hazmat response teams are going to be better equipped than the military."
They may have to be, and not just because of a possible biowar. As terrorists continue to experiment with small-scale chemical and biological weapons, police and hazmat teams will have to recognize an attack in progress and know how to respond. Unlike explosives, germs and poisons do the worst of their damage silently.
Particularly in the case of a gas attack, a quick response is critical -- experts speak of a "golden hour" in which intervention can save lives.
When a truck bomb exploded at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, for example, emergency crews never checked to see if the device had been laced with a chemical agent. That blunder could have had lethal consequences.
A number of terrorists have already used or attempted to use chemical or biological weapons in small quantities. Although a bomb is easier to use, and in many ways more practical, exotic weapons make even small attacks disproportionately frightening.
In 1984, for instance, two members of an Oregon cult poisoned local salad bars with salmonella, infecting 750 people (none fatally) in an attempt to fix a local election.
In 1994, two members of the right-wing Minnesota Patriots Council were arrested for planning to smear ricin, a lethal poison drawn from the seeds of a common garden plant, on doorknobs.
Nevertheless, only one group -- the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo -- has succeeded in launching a large-scale chemical attack. After several failed attempts with sarin nerve gas and anthrax, cult members killed 12 and injured more than 5,000 in Tokyo by planting pouches of sarin gas on the subway.
Although some experts and government officials agree with "Nightline" that a major attack is coming -- Defense Secretary William Cohen famously declared that it was no longer a matter of "if," but "when" -- the greater threat from increased access to exotic weapons may be more attacks rather than bigger ones.
After all, terrorists only need to kill a few people -- violently and with no warning -- to wield the weapon of fear. Kill too many people, the logic goes, and governments will dig in their heels; the public will harden. As Col. Robert Leitch, a military medical consultant, explained, "You don't want to kill a lot, just one, and publicly, with lots and lots of pictures."
The strategic issues may be changing: A new class of terrorist has emerged in the last 10 years, drawing inspiration from religious or extremist subcultures without the political agenda of, say, the Irish Republican Army or Hezbollah.
Frank Ciluffo, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this new class of terrorist is especially dangerous, because it has no interest in a sympathetic public. "Historically, terrorism has been a tactic to get to the negotiating table. Today, on the other hand, you've got a number of groups who don't want to get to that table, they want to blow up that table ... They're not concerned with popular support."
Nevertheless, if you assume that only groups fitting a relatively narrow profile would attempt an attack on the scale that "Biowar" depicted, then the world is much less threatening than if you assume any malcontent with a chemistry kit is a potential Dr. Apocalypse.
Analysts remain anxious about Aum Shinrikyo, which combines significant resources ($300 million to $1 billion, by some estimates) with technical expertise and a sufficiently skewed worldview. Bin Laden also shows a similar mix of religious extremism and deep pockets.
But with the number of major threats reduced to a handful, sound intelligence can do much to prevent a calamity. Technical challenges further limit the pool of potential mass terrorists further. Despite money and expertise, for instance, Aum Shinrikyo failed in several attempts to find a way to disperse its nerve gas widely enough to kill thousands. In the end, it was only able to kill 12 people -- tragic, to be sure, but a far cry from 50,000.
If the threat is limited, the defense measures aren't. Every year, Americans spend $100 billion on personal security -- an industry that employs some 2 million people -- and counterterrorism has been claiming a growing piece of that pie. The number of agents at the FBI devoted to counterterrorism has grown from 550 in 1993 to 1,383 this year. The White House has committed $11.4 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade security at U.S. embassies around the world. And in January, President Clinton pledged $10 billion to fight terrorism in 2000.
But there are limits to what prevention can accomplish. Like car thieves, terrorists go for easy targets. As Washington takes steps to secure embassies, military bases, airports and government buildings, terrorists will still be left with a long list of targets to choose from -- town centers, tourist attractions, commercial areas and public transport. "No terrorist bomb will remain unexploded for want of a target," Jenkins remarked. If everyone is a suspect and everyone is a target, law enforcement cannot possibly prevent every incident.
Still, the most immediate challenge facing Washington may be neither a biowar nor a proliferation of attacks, but its own counterterrorism bureaucracy. As of 1997, 40 different government agencies were in the business of fighting terrorists. At the recent terrorism conference, I encountered military officers, independent analysts, police officers, accountants, at least one spy, a man who (among other, more relevant credentials) invented a robot howitzer, a student from my alma mater, contractors, doctors, a patent lawyer and a busload of firemen.
Committing $10 billion was easy. Deciding who gets it is another matter altogether. Maybe we should call it Bureauwar.