Battle Boring

October 24th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

Just hours after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Republican Representative Curt Weldon went on CNN and announced that he didn’t want to hear anyone talking about funding for schools or hospitals. From here on it, it was all about spies, bombs and other manly things.

"The first priority of the U.S. government is not education, it is not health care, it is the defense and protection of U.S. citizens," he said, adding, later: "I’m a teacher married to a nurse—none of that matters today."

But now it turns out that those frivolous social services matter a great deal. What is making the U.S. most vulnerable to terrorist networks is not a depleted weapons arsenal but its starved, devalued and crumbling public sector. The new battle fields are not just the Pentagon, but also the post office; not just military intelligence, but also training for doctors and nurses; not a sexy new missile defense shield, but the boring old Food and Drug Administration.

It has become fashionable to wryly observe that the terrorists use the West’s technologies as weapons against itself: planes, email, cell phones. But as fears of bioterrorism mount, it could well turn out that their best weapons are the rips and holes in the U.S.’s public infrastructure.

Is this because there was no time to prepare for the attacks? Hardly. The U.S. administration has openly recognized the threat of biological attacks since the Gulf War, and Bill Clinton renewed calls to protect the nation from bioterror after the embassy bombings in 1998. And yet shockingly little has actually been done.

The reason is simple: preparing for biological warfare would have required a cease-fire in America’s older, less dramatic war—the one against the public sphere. It didn’t happen. Here are some snapshots from the front lines.

The Health System

Half the states in the U.S. don’t have federal experts trained in bioterrorism. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention are buckling under the strain of anthrax fears, their under-funded labs scrambling to keep up with the demand for tests. Little research has been done on how to treat children who have contracted anthrax, since Cipro—the most popular antibiotic—is not recommended.

Many doctors in the U.S. public health care system have not been trained to identify symptoms of anthrax, botulism or plague. A recent U.S. Senate panel heard that hospitals and health departments lack basic diagnostic tools and information sharing is difficult since some departments don’t have email access. Many health departments are closed on weekends, with no staff on call.

If treatment is a mess, federal inoculation programs are in worse shape.The only laboratory in the U.S. licensed to produce the anthrax vaccine has left the country unprepared for its current crisis. Why? It’s a typical privatization debacle. The lab, located in Lansing, Michigan, used to be owned and operated by the state. In 1998, it was sold to BioPort, which promised greater efficiency. Instead, the new lab has failed several Food and Drug Administration inspections and has so far been unable to supply a single dose of the vaccine to the U.S. military, let alone to the general population.

As for small pox, there are not nearly enough vaccines to cover the population, leading the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to experiment with diluting the existing vaccines at a ratio of 1/5 or even 1/10.

The Water System

Internal documents show that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is years behind schedule in safeguarding the water supply against bio-terrorist attacks. According to an audit released on October 4, the EPA was supposed to have identified security vulnerabilities in municipal water supplies by 1999 but it hasn’t yet completed even this first stage.

The Food Supply

Another federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration, has proved unable to introduce measures that would better protect the food supply from "agroterrorism"—deadly bacteria introduced to the food supply. With agriculture increasingly centralized and globalized, the sector is vulnerable to the spread of disease, both inside the U.S. and outside (as the hoof-and-mouth epidemic demonstrated most recently). But the FDA, which only managed to inspect 1 per cent of food imports under its jurisdiction last year, says it is in "desperate need of more inspectors." Tom Hammonds, chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, an industry group representing food sellers, says that, "Should a crisis arise—real or manufactured as a hoax—the deficiencies of the current system would become glaringly obvious."

After September 11, George Bush created the position of "Homeland Security," designed to evoke a nation steeled and prepared for any attack. And yet it turns out that what "homeland security" really means is a mad rush to reassemble basic public infrastructure and resurrect heath and safety standards that have been drastically eroded. The troupes at the front lines of America’s new war are embattled indeed: the very bureaucracies that have been cutback, privatized and vilified for two decades, not just in the U.S. but in virtually every country in the world.

"Public health is a national security issue," U.S. secretary of health Tommy Thompson observed earlier this month. No kidding. For years, critics have argued that there are human costs to all the cost cutting, deregulating and privatizing—train crashes in Britain, ecoli outbreaks in Walkerton, food poisoning, and substandard health care. And yet until September 11, "security" was still narrowly confined to the machinery of war and policing, a fortress built atop a crumbling foundation.

If there is a lesson to be learned out of this mess, it is that real security cannot be cordoned off. It is woven into our most basic social fabric, from the post office to the emergency room, from the subway to the water reservoir, from schools to food inspection. Infrastructure—the boring stuff that binds us all together—is not irrelevant to the serious business of fighting terrorism. It is the foundation of all of our future security.