As France and the world reeled from the terror attacks in Paris, French prime minister Manuel Vallsthis week that “there is also a risk of chemical and bacteriological weapons”.
Is there? Experts in such weapons are dubious. None of those I contacted believes ISIS can make chemical or biological weapons. The group, which said it carried out the Paris attacks, is likely to have used mustard gas in Syria, but it is thought to have just a few old shells salvaged in Iraq.
“I wondered if the French had new intelligence – until I heard Valls say, not chemical weapons, not biological weapons, but both together,” says, a chemical weapons specialist formerly with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. Invoking this kind of generic threat is typical, he says, “after any terror attack that causes extreme shock”.
After gunmen targeted Lod Airport in Israel in 1972, UK peer Lord Chalfontthat “nowadays international terrorists will stop virtually at nothing. The chemical weapon is easily portable, cheaply made and easily used.” After two in 1998, President Bill Clinton talked of the “prospects… of chemical, biological and other kinds of attacks.”
Similar concerns were raised, including, after attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. Yet there has been just one chemical attack (Japan in 1996), and a small biological one ( ). Neither were by foreign terrorists nor were they anywhere near the Paris toll.
These warnings seem to stem from a fear that, as Valls put it, the “macabre imagination of those who give the orders is limitless… we cannot exclude anything”.
Actually, we can exclude some things, up to a point. Of course no one can ever say for sure what the next attack will be. But germs and chemicals are hard to get and hard to use. The terrorists who struck Paris wreaked havoc with guns and bombs. Why do more? And why do we always fear they will?
Humans have an aversion to disease and poison that is profound, unreasoning and universal. In responding to an outrage, it seems prudent to fear the worst; chemical and biological weapons evoke the worst. It also seems responsible to warn people that the worst may happen.
But these warnings are futile: there is little civil defence against such weapons beyond hospitals or things like gas masks and vaccines – and most people won’t get their hands on those.
Officials who raise this spectre understandably want to look like they are doing something – or may be trying to win support for tough security measures. But vulnerable people are traumatised enough by current events. Raising not-terribly-founded fears just because they echo our worst nightmare isn’t going to help.
Image: Andrzej Krauze
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