The Executioner’s Face Is Always Well-Hidden

Personally, I am not reassured when scientists who have no experience in offensive biological warfare and who are not privy to sound intelligence tell us COVID-19 was not produced in a lab. I am even less reassured when, each time we see the argument, it is an argument from individual ignorance: “COVID-19 does not have property X. I, distinguished Professor J,  would have engineered a biological weapon with property X. Therefore, the Luxembourgeois did not engineer COVID-19.”

But even if COVID-19 was not a deliberate attack or an escaped lab product, the damage it has done—and that we have done to ourselves in responding to it—requires us to think anew about the prospects of a biological attack.

Suppose we are leaders of a rich and powerful country, a country with up-to-date biomedical laboratories and a country that, just on the edge of living memory, was the target of the worst biological warfare attacks in the history of the modern world. How can we arm ourselves with a contagious disease as a biological weapon while preserving deniability and avoiding, to the extent possible, blowback damage to our own population should we decide not just to prepare but to use that weapon?

We would need to have such a weapon ready, and at the same time have already hardened our population in secret against its effects. We know one way to do that. Every year in our large and densely populated country new human diseases emerge, and our scientists and physicians—working with the global community of researchers and bioengineers—work constantly to prepare prophylactics for those diseases, present and anticipated, imported and endemic. Our country has a large pharmaceutical industry and a widespread and effective system of clinics where the products of that industry can be given to patients. When a new disease—call it P—for which there is a vaccine hits us or hits abroad, we announce a vaccination campaign. 

To the vaccine for P, our pharmaceutical companies secretly add the vaccine for our secretly weaponized disease Q. Thanks to our effective system of “social credit,” we can make sure that all of our compliant citizens get stuck with the vaccines for both P and Q—the P vaccine we disclose or whose formula we have openly imported, and the Q vaccine we have secretly developed and secretly included.

Could hundreds of millions of people really be injected with a vaccine without knowing it? 

Consider your smartphone. The cybersecurity experts inside and outside governments assume, as a matter of course, that your smartphone is backdoored by every country where it was designed or manufactured and by every country where its software is designed or manufactured. And you put your phone in your pocket, from which the backdoor controllers, whoever and wherever they may be, suck out all the location, meta- and substantive data they request. You do not know—indeed, nobody knows—all the backdoors and spyware on your phone. But believe the experts when they assure you that your phone is compromised. 

Just as the cyber operators add a door to your phone you don’t know about, the biomedical industry and the doctors, operating through secret government coordination and with very few people actually needing to know, can add a shield to your immune system you don’t know about—a shield that would be useful should the biowarfare executioners get the command to attack.

What is to be done? Just as the nuclear age stimulated open and public discussion of nuclear deterrence and nuclear defense, we need an open and public discussion about biological deterrence and biological defense.  

Democratic countries need to discuss and decide on policies of deterrence of biological attack by whatever means, as well as the prospect for a Strategic Defense Initiative that might mitigate the fear of biological attack. Human nature being what it is, the Luxembourgs great and small will behave better if they know that misbehavior will be punished and that biological aggression not only will be chastised but has a good chance of fizzling before it does serious damage.

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

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