The lure of bio-weapons
BOSTON HAS LONG been a world leader in medical research -- home to seminal discoveries that have cured lethal diseases, prolonged life, and revolutionized the very practice of medicine. But Boston University's plan to construct a high security laboratory known as BioSafety Level Four will diverge from that tradition. By undertaking research on biological weapons, the lab will be a source of new and highly dangerous pathogens.
Supporters of the laboratory argue that its activities will be devoted exclusively to defensive research on biological weapons. The Pentagon has stated that its goal is to develop genetically engineered biological weapons in order to discover defenses against them. These inevitably will have offensive capabilities.
Testimony before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the porous boundary between offensive and defensive biological weapons research. During the apartheid era, leading physicians and scientists were persuaded to join a burgeoning biological weapons program on the grounds that they were undertaking only defensive research. In top-secret laboratories, the government also funded research on biological weapons for offensive purposes. The findings of the so-called defensive laboratories were channeled to the scientists doing the dirty work.
Security from the threat of biological weapons depends on sound international agreements to ban such weapons along with enforceable mechanisms for monitoring and compliance. Indeed President Nixon in 1969 unilaterally and unconditionally renounced biological weapons and scrapped the US research program on the grounds that "mankind already carries in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction."
Six years later under US leadership, the Biological Weapons Convention, a landmark among weapons control treaties, was ratified by more than 145 countries. Such wisdom is no longer in evidence.
The irony is that the US government is now heading in the opposite direction.
The widely recognized weakness of the Biological Weapons Convention in preventing proliferation led in 1995 to negotiations for a new protocol.
After several years of intense international talks, a new strengthened protocol was agreed upon, but the Bush administration rejected a binding treaty approach and ended the negotiations.
This unilateral action has been interpreted as an abrogation of the treaty and as a prelude to a US secret research program on offensive bio-weapons. National security is to be achieved through military superiority and technological dominance.
A key lesson of the tragic 9/11 experience is thereby forgotten. All the advanced offensive weapons the Pentagon had amassed, at a cost of many trillions of dollars, were overcome by terrorists armed with simple box cutters. Also forgotten is that the first significant bio-terror attack in the United States likely emerged from a weapons facility such as the one now being planned in Boston. There is ample evidence that the anthrax in the letters mailed to Congress and elsewhere came from the Army biological weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
The unilateralist policies being now pursued by our government will surely unleash global proliferation. Are we ready to become accomplices in a sordid biological weapons race? Are we willing thereby to tarnish the good name of our city?
Bernard Lown, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, is professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health. Prasannan Parthasarathi is associate professor of history at Boston College.