Volume XVIII Number 2 (February 2008)


Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
By Barry Kellman

Reviewed by Lt Col Carol Northrup

(The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States government.)

Conventional terrorist bombings—deadly and frightening as they may be—are of limited value to the zealot who wants to destabilize 21st century civilization.  The 9/11 attacks, the bombings of the Madrid and London subways and other, smaller attacks may have put the world on edge, but they have not threatened civilization as a whole.  Ultimately there are only two ways to “rattle the pillars of modern civilization:” use of nuclear weapons or use of biological weapons.  The use of either weapon would set in motion consequences so catastrophic as to call into question the ability of existing governments to maintain order.  Excepting the “Iranian Problem,” the international community has stepped up—with a good deal of success—to the monumental task of monitoring, regulating and tracking nuclear weapons, but it has failed miserably to do the same with biological weapons.  This failure of leadership on the part of the international community means that bioweapons are far more available, cheaper and easier to use than nuclear weapons and are likely to be the weapon of choice for any entity wishing to “shred the social fabric” of 21st century society.  So posits Barry Kellman in his latest book entitled Bioviolence:  Preventing Biological Terror and Crime.

Kellman not only seeks to warn us that bioviolence—the infliction of harm by the intentional manipulation of living micro-organisms for hostile purposes—is a very real threat that merits serious attention.  He also makes the argument that there are wise strategies available that can reduce bioviolence threats, but that these strategies have serious ramifications for the international community and will demand big changes in global governance.  In short Bioviolence is a book about the gravity of the threat and the inadequacy of the response thus far; Kellman seeks to provide a “blueprint for today’s decision-makers to follow … to improve humanity’s security.”    That’s a pretty tall order.

Kellman is a DePaul University professor of International Law and director of the university’s International Weapons Control Center.  He helped create and is now Special Advisor to the Interpol Program on Prevention of Bio-Crimes and is senior chair of the American Bar Association Committee on International Law and Security.  Professor Kellman served on the National Academies of Sciences Committee on Research Standards to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology (2003) and was a Legal Advisor to the National Commission on Terrorism.  He is clearly well qualified to write on the topic and his expertise is evident in this work.

Bioviolence is comprised of two parts: Part I describes the problem of bioviolence and how it evolved into its current dangerously unmanageable condition.  Kellman begins with an excellent explanation of the what and the how of biological weapons and finishes with an overview of who has perpetrated bioviolence in the past, and who is most likely to perpetrate it in the future.  Part II details what Kellman terms the “bioviolence policy failure” and frightening lack of controls on bioscience methods and materials today and then recommends a global strategy for preventing future bioviolence attacks.

Though Kellman sounds a bit apocalyptic at times (“no other problem facing humanity is so potentially cataclysmic and has been so inadequately addressed”), overall he succeeds in convincing us of the gravity of the threat without overstating it.  He provides a superb explanation of various potential bioweapons and how they could and/or have been used.  It is not only disease in its current form that threatens us.  Advancements in nanotechnology introduce new possibilities for weaponization, and new technologies in genomics mean biological agents can be created today that are more contagious, more lethal and more treatment-resistant than ever before.  Kellman admits effective use of such agents is very difficult; many of the terrifying scenarios of gene manipulation and germ dissemination he paints are beyond the reach of current scientific capability. But, he contends, existing hurdles are being steadily eroded.             

Having laid out the dangers of bioviolence, Kellman turns to the solutions.  The problem of bioviolence and how to prevent it, he says, is not a question of science, it is a question of law.  He sees a systematic failure to clarify and to enforce legal obligations that could make committing bioviolence difficult.  Because the science is outpacing the policy, and because the threat is truly global in nature, we need an international architecture that transcends sovereignty to develop and enforce a policy that links the agencies that address security and bioterrorism policy with those that regulate public health and disease.

This architecture would address four areas: complication, resistance, preparedness, and nonproliferation.  First, the international community must complicate the bioterrorist’s efforts by denying access to pathogens and equipment and by interdicting transport of such pathogens and equipment.  Resistance is a two-part strategy whereby science is used to develop vaccines and medications that enable us to resist pathogens, and policies are developed to restrain bioscience’s potential for developing dangerous capabilities.  Kellman’s prescription also includes programs to make all communities better prepared to deal with an incidence of bioviolence, as well as to strictly enforce measures to inhibit the proliferation of bioscience for nefarious purposes.

Professor Kellman’s proposed solutions are thoughtful and rational.  He is careful to address the need to avoid “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” by overly restricting legitimate scientific inquiry.  He makes a good case for why the solution must be a global one and one that is interdisciplinary and international.  He convincingly portrays a threat so great that it challenges current ideas about how the international community should be governed and eloquently shows why we cannot continue to muddle through.  Unfortunately, his solutions are not entirely realistic.

The world may, indeed, be “flattening,” but states are still partial to their sovereignty and few—if any—are likely to surrender as large a portion of it as Kellman deems necessary.  He glosses over the very real problems of setting up the types of international/supra-national commissions and committees he advocates and assumes that, once established, these entities necessarily will function above the fray of individual state interests.  That may be desirable, even necessary, but it is not likely.

Though Kellman’s solutions fall short, Bioviolence can be recommended as an excellent introduction to the topic.  The book’s strength lies in the superb job it does defining the threat and demonstrating the extremely complex nature of the problem.  Kellman’s obvious expertise and research are especially evident in the first half of the book, making it particularly helpful for laypersons seeking to learn about the basic concepts regarding methods of bioviolence.  Without a thorough and widespread understanding of the problem, we will never reach workable solutions.


Copyright ISCIP 2008
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
for Perspective.

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