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International Security 27.3 (2002/03) 89-123

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Dreaded Risksand the Control of Biological Weapons

Jessica Stern

One week after the September 11,2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to the offices of NBC News, the New York Post, and the publisher of the National Enquirer. Contaminated letters were subsequently sent to, among others, then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). By the end of the year, anthrax- contaminated letters had infected eighteen people, five of whom died. 1 Although the anthrax attacks resulted in relatively few casualties, at least one poll suggested that public concern about biological terrorism had increased. 2 Some 10,000 people, actually or potentially exposed to virulent anthrax spores, were prescribed prophylactic antibiotics with unknown long-term effects on their health or the health of the public at large. 3

In the aftermath of the September 11attacks and anthrax mailings, U.S. policymakers scrambled to enact new legislation to address the terrorist threat. The urgency of the effort precluded careful balancing of competing interests, with potential adverse effects on civil liberties, public health, and national security. The U.S.A. Patriot Act, passed by both Houses of Congress in the space of weeks, was signed by President George W. Bush on October 26. Among its provisions, the act overrides laws in forty-eight states that made library records [End Page 89] private. 4 In March 2002 the White House ordered all federal agencies to remove from their websites sensitive, but unclassified, documents that terrorists could use to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 5 George Poste, a prominent biologist and science adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense urged that some aspects of basic microbiological research be made classified, prompting heated debate among biologists about the costs and benefits of openness in science. 6 The Patriot Act also criminalizes inappropriate possession of biological agents except for medical purposes or "bona fide" research and prohibits "restricted persons" from working with them. 7 Critics argue that these policies could hinder legitimate research on naturally occurring and deliberately disseminated infectious disease. 8

Risk analysts have long observed a tendency for policymakers to respond rapidly to visible crises, even if the baseline rate of danger has not changed. 9 Examples include the enactment of Superfund in response to the furor over the 1978 declaration of Love Canal as a hazardous site and the Oil Pollution Act enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, each of which was found to have serious drawbacks. 10 This tendency to respond quickly encourages reactive "risk of the month" policies crafted in the wake of visible or highly publicized events, resulting in ad hoc policymaking with little regard to competing interests, as John Graham and Jonathan Baert Wiener have observed in regard to environmental and health policy. 11 This dynamic may partly be explained [End Page 90] by what Anthony Patt and Richard Zeckhauser refer to as "action bias"—that is, decisionmakers' penchant for taking action without necessarily considering its long-term effects, coupled with a tendency to choose those actions for which they are likely to receive the most credit. 12 At the same time, national attention often drifts once a crisis appears to be over. Perhaps then the biggest challenge for policymakers in responding to the fall 2001 terrorist strikes is to avoid overreacting while the strikes remain vivid in people's minds—what risk analysts refer to as "availability"—and to sustain the effort to reduce thethreat, even during periods when the risk recedes from the national con-sciousness.

This article argues that effective policymaking requires an assessment of countervailing dangers introduced by remedies intended to decrease a target risk (the one the policy aims to reduce), even when it is particularly dreaded and when both target and countervailing risks are difficult to quantify. Such risk trade-off analysis has become commonplace in evaluations of medical procedures, health risks of pesticides, and policies for protecting the environment, but it is not...


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