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Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Lewis M. Simons
A month or so before Christmas, three people, most likely male, walked into a crowded shopping mall in Oklahoma City. Dressed as maintenance workers and carrying plant sprayers, they strolled among the holiday shoppers, tending to the potted plants that decorated the gaily lit corridors. A short time later, their work complete, the three walked to mall exits and vanished into the night. At that moment two other teams were doing the same thing at malls in Atlanta and Philadelphia.
At 7 p.m. on December 9, the President of the United States met secretly with his National Security Council—which included the national security advisor, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The President stunned them with his opening remarks: "The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that at least one case of smallpox—and maybe as many as 20—have occurred among civilians in Oklahoma City. . . . Presumably, this disease has been deliberately introduced and [is] the result of a bioterrorist attack on the United States." As the President spoke, a laboratory in Oklahoma confirmed 20 cases of smallpox and said it suspected 14 more. Nine other cases were reported in Atlanta and seven in Philadelphia.
Federal and state authorities immediately swung into action, and within 24 hours FBI agents were combing the streets of Oklahoma City. At the White House, the deputy secretary of health and human services confirmed that the only two known sources of smallpox were at the CDC's heavily guarded repository in Atlanta and the Vector laboratory outside Novosibirsk, Russia. Intelligence revealed that a former Vector scientist, an expert in smallpox, had left Russia and was believed to be in Iraq.
By the next week, tens of thousands of Americans showing symptoms, or imagining them, were overwhelming hospital emergency rooms. Television news repeatedly ran footage of a tearful mother, toddler in arms, pleading for vaccine as a policeman shoved her back into the crowd.
Meanwhile, chaos swamped those who were trying to manage the crisis. Congress and state legislatures, the FBI and CIA, fire and police departments, the Defense Department and National Guard, public health agencies and private physicians—all lost valuable time and energy in the confusion over procedures and turf.
By December 15, officials had confirmed 2,000 cases in 15 states, with more in Canada, Mexico, and Britain. The death toll had hit 300.
A week later there were 16,000 cases in half the states in the country, and a thousand people had died—200 from reactions to vaccine. Cities were paralyzed as millions tried to flee the epidemic. Vaccine supplies were now exhausted, and violence was rampant in the streets.
Health authorities projected that by February there would be three million cases of smallpox in the United States. One million Americans would be dead, with no end in sight.
This doomsday scenario was, in fact, a game, but no one involved was having any fun. It was played in June 2001 around a table at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C. Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn assumed the role of the President, with other prominent figures playing cabinet members, military leaders, heads of federal agencies, state officials, and journalists. The point of the exercise, code-named Dark Winter, was to see how prepared the United States was to deal with a biological weapons attack.
So how did it go? Soon after the exercise Nunn testified before the U.S. Congress—the real one—on the failures Dark Winter had exposed. The country was critically short of vaccine, Nunn warned. It had not trained top officials, planned a coordinated response, built an adequate public health infrastructure, educated the public or the media, practiced the few plans that were in place, or ranked bioterror as a high national priority. "It's a lucky thing for the United States," said Nunn, "that this was just a test and not a real emergency."
It took a real emergency—September 11 and its aftermath—to turn this exercise from a grim fantasy to a matter of life and death.
Although the airplane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon showed that almost anything could be used to kill large numbers of people, most of us probably still visualize the nuclear blast, with its signature mushroom cloud, when we think of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, as national security experts know the genre.
But while some countries are amassing bombs and a few more are working feverishly to acquire their first, the world may have more to fear from other, less familiar means of attack. At one end of the scale are alternative threats ranging from so-called dirty bombs—conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material—to the click of a cyberterrorist's mouse, hacking into computer systems to attack a nation's water supply, air traffic, energy infrastructure, financial systems, and communications. At the other end, the most lethal attacks would be caused by traditional nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Around the time that "President" Nunn was grappling with Dark Winter, photographer Lynn Johnson and I set out to report on the threats facing humanity from such weapons. In the many months since, we've traveled to some of the world's darkest and most frightening corners, in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Iran, Japan, and the United States.
At first we found people barely paying attention, hardly aware that such threats existed. Then came September 11, followed by the discovery of anthrax spores in letters to U.S. politicians and media figures. The sobering lessons of Dark Winter rose to the top of everyone's agenda. Governments scrambled to prepare for, and prevent, the next attack.
In response to these disasters, Lynn and I naively expected that locked gates would be thrown open to us and the searchlights switched on. Instead we found that blackest night had fallen on the tightly guarded world of WMD. Doors were slammed in our faces. Key scientific labs and military installations around the world that had given us the green light before September 11 were suddenly off-limits. Political leaders clammed up. Intelligence agents had better things to do. People we had trusted dealt us lies and misinformation.
Still, we managed to pry open enough doors to gain a clear sense of what humanity is facing in this battle for our collective future. Because of its status as the world's only superpower, the United States is the most obvious target, but the whole world is now on notice: When nations—or terrorists—turn to weapons of mass destruction, no one on Earth is truly safe.
All this comes at a time when the old geopolitical rules seem to have flown out the window. For half a century a titanic clash of superpowers kept nations divided but fairly certain of who had the power to do what and to whom. No more. In many ways the world is more dangerous today than at any time since 1945, when the United States first used a nuclear weapon to bomb Japan into submission and end World War II.
"There is no longer a [single] global conflict," Zinovy Pak, director of the Russian Munitions Agency, told me in Moscow. "Butis the world safer? Unfortunately not. Today there are mainly local causes of conflict—social, religious, ethnic, racial. But because of developments in science and technology, there are new ways, new weapons, to resolve these conflicts."
A dozen years after the Cold War finally petered out, the United States and Russia still control most of the world's WMD. Each has enough weaponry to kill every form of life on Earth many times over, if dying more than once were possible.
In the latest round of nuclear arms cuts, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed to reduce the number of warheads mounted on missiles and bombers from their current levels of around 6,000 each to no more than 2,200 each by the end of 2012. Few experts believe that either nation would set out to use these weapons against each other—unlike some other members of the WMD club.
In the Middle East it is widely believed that Israel possesses all three categories of WMD, with its enemies Iraq and Iran not far behind. Libya, Syria, and Egypt are involved in chemical and biological programs.
South Asia vies with the Middle East as the world's most volatile danger zone. India and Pakistan, who've been staring down the barrel at each other across the lovely and bitterly contested region of Kashmir, are both armed with nuclear weapons. They've fought three conventional wars and narrowly averted another earlier this year. Certainly the next one, or the one after that, could go nuclear.
Elsewhere, North Korea and China are known to possess, or to be developing, one or more types of WMD. And in Europe, France and the United Kingdom bear nuclear arms.
Then there are the freelancers, what the analysts call "non-state actors" (though some are funded and housed by governments), whose willingness to die for their beliefs makes their tactics and their timing utterly unpredictable. If they were to strike, where would they get their weapons?
Russia, because of its vast WMD stocks and economic turmoil, is the most obvious answer. A poor and weak Russia can cause harm in ways that a powerful Soviet Union never did—even as it is voluntarily disarming.
Given Russia's dysfunctional economy, Moscow is in no position to spend millions of dollars on security for its stores of deactivated nuclear warheads, along with the former U.S.S.R.'s decaying production facilities, submarines, and reactors, which hold enough material for thousands of nuclear bombs.
Russian authorities say that since 1991, there have been 23 attempts to steal fissile material from nuclear facilities and Soviet-era stockpiles, which reside at over 40 locations across Russia as well as in former Soviet republics. In 1994 the U.S. government purchased 1,300 pounds of highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan to get it out of circulation.
Some of the thieves were caught. Others succeeded in smuggling small quantities of weapons-grade material out of the country, leading U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that enough material for a nuclear bomb has already left Russia. Also of grave concern are the unknown quantities that went missing or unaccounted for as the Soviet bureaucracy unraveled.
The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Department of Energy have launched programs to dispose of such material and to update security at former Soviet facilities, and U.S. lawmakers recently increased funding for their efforts. But even with U.S.-supplied razor wire and TV monitors, Russian WMD sites are subject to the whims of underpaid scientists and soldiers who have been stripped of their former prestige and dignity.
While the world puts Russia under the microscope, it's hardly the only source of tools for terrorists. In the United States, as well as in other advanced nations, chemical plants, biological labs, food irradiation plants, medical x-ray facilities, and nuclear reactors and waste repositories are all potential suppliers.
In 1998 three Greenpeace activists boarded a British-flagged freighter carrying a cargo of highly radioactive nuclear waste as it approached the Panama Canal en route to Japan. Greenpeace meant to protest the environmental hazards of shipping nuclear materials, but it amply demonstrated how easily terrorists could hijack such deadly cargo.
International treaties designed to exercise at least some limited control over WMD have been in place for decades, with varying degrees of effectiveness. (Citing those failures, the Bush Administration has pulled the United States out of international nuclear agreements and criticized existing biological and chemical treaties, to the consternation of its allies.)
Russian munitions chief Pak's specific task, under the Chemical Weapons Convention, is to destroy 44,000 tons (39,900 metric tons) of Soviet chemical agents. He notes that both Russia and the U.S. are already years behind schedule on meeting the 2007 deadline imposed by the convention for destroying chemical stockpiles.
Some experts are skeptical about the potency of chemical weapons, which can be rendered ineffective by heavy wind or rain. But don't tell that to the Iranian war veterans I talked to, whose health was ruined by Saddam Hussein's poison gas attacks in the 1980s, or to the Kurdish villagers I interviewed who watched their families die agonizing deaths in similar attacks. And don't tell it to Yoshiyuki Kouno, whose wife, Sumiko, has been in a vegetative state since she inhaled sarin gas released by the Aum Shinrikyo cult near her home in Matsumoto, Japan.
Although Zinovy Pak's days are spent dealing with chemical weapons, his "worst nightmare" has nothing to do with toxic gas. It's about biological weapons—the microscopic killers that epitomize terror, such as the smallpox "released" in Dark Winter.
In most cases, going nuclear requires a massive financial commitment: Components and expertise are hard to acquire, and facilities are necessarily large and, so, easily identified. Chemicals are hard to control and often poison those who use them. But a biological weapon can be made cheaply in a small building, even in the back of a truck, and transported with ease.
William C. Patrick should know. He directed product development for the U.S. Army's offensive bioweapons program until 1969, when the U.S. stopped producing these weapons. As Patrick points out, he can carry all the biological agent needed to wipe out a city without setting off a single alarm. Addressing New York City firefighters in Brooklyn just weeks before September 11, the grandfatherly Patrick opened a brown attaché case and pulled out bottles of simulated anthrax and smallpox.
"I carried this through airport security in Baltimore and La Guardia this morning," Patrick announced. "Not once was I asked to open this bag."
For these reasons and others, biological warfare is particularly appealing to less-developed nations and to terrorists. When the day comes that one of these players uses such a weapon, say the experts who are paid to guess such things, the dead will be counted in the tens or hundreds of thousands—especially if the agent is smallpox or some form of plague.
"While anthrax is relatively accessible to terrorists, anthrax isn't contagious," said D. A. Henderson, leader of the World Health Organization program credited with finally eradicating smallpox worldwide in 1980. "Smallpox is. There's some evidence that smallpox may already have been transported out of Russia to the Middle East, possibly to Iran or Iraq, and maybe even North Korea. If smallpox was released by these or any other countries, we'd be looking at a global catastrophe."
How a bioweapon would arrive is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps it would come by way of an air-conditioning system at a convention center in Berlin, at a soccer game in Rome, or in a midwestern shopping mall, as in Dark Winter. The container could be left at rush hour on the track of a Paris Metro station to be crushed beneath the wheels of an arriving train. Or the targets need not be human at all. Pathogens that kill food crops or livestock could be sprayed over a Japanese rice field or a grazing cattle herd in Argentina. The only sure bet is that it will be done quietly, in what the experts term a "silent release." A great irony in the remarkable biological research being done today is that much of the work intended to improve and prolong human life can, with minimal effort, be turned into the most horrendous means of ending it. By manipulating genetic material, researchers can produce vaccines and treat life-threatening diseases like cancer. Genes can also be altered to produce a new strain of anthrax, against which no one has protection.
Commercial culture collections around the world—including in the United States—offer menus of biological agents for sale. The customers in nearly all cases are legitimate scientists working on biomedical research. But one rogue scientist, ordering by mail, could transform this material into a biological weapon.
Then there are the deadly germs kept alive in the cold-storage laboratories Lynn and I toured in the former Soviet Union. While Zinovy Pak says he stays awake at night worrying about security at American biotech labs, U.S. officials say they have nightmares about what's happening in the places we visited. I certainly do.
At one of these sites in Kazakhstan, we found doors to labs and refrigerators secured with dirty string and blobs of wax. We saw glass vials of plague bacteria stored in a metal can still bearing its original paper label, "peas," inside a refrigerator you'd have found in grandma's kitchen 50 years ago. If I'd tried to walk out with a vial, I'm sure I would have been stopped or arrested. But what if I worked in the lab or had the money to buy my way past trouble?
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet biological weapons program employed some 60,000 workers in more than 50 locations. Scientists in Russia and Kazakhstan, where most Soviet labs were located, assured us that all such installations had been destroyed. U.S. intelligence sources, barred from many of the sites, can't confirm this. But even if all the biological agents in the Soviet—or U.S.—stockpiles were destroyed, we'd still have plenty to worry about.
"The important thing is the recipes that remain in the minds of the scientists who developed them and the engineers who weaponized them," said Brian Hayes, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces major, who now inspects Soviet weapons sites for DTRA, as we traveled together in Kazakhstan. The United States considers more than 700 former Soviet weapons scientists to be security risks.
In Russia, as well as in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, I asked repeatedly if anyone knew of scientists or engineers who'd gone abroad to work. Several people said they'd heard of this one or that who'd taken a job in the United States. But Iran? Iraq? North Korea? No. How about Syria, Sudan, Libya? No, no one. "You must remember," said Zinovy Pak, "we're next door to Iran and Iraq. Why would we want them armed with weapons of mass destruction?"
Among my fellow guests at a Tehran hotel recently was a group of 11 Russians. Neatly dressed, soft-spoken, they were there when I arrived and still there when I departed two weeks later. Each morning a white van picked them up, and each afternoon it returned them. They ate all their meals together. One evening I approached their table and introduced myself. What, I asked, are you folks doing here? "Teaching," replied a gray-haired man in an open-collared shirt. Ah. Teaching what? "Engineering." Then they excused themselves.
When I pursued this with Dr. Asad Ardalan, head of Iran's Center for Legal and International Studies, his response was equally simple: "That assistance is for our nuclear energy program. It has nothing to do with weapons."
In that case, I asked, what about dual-purpose technology? Couldn't the information and expertise being supplied by these Russians for peaceful purposes also be used to build weapons? His response was, I thought, a classic of its kind—evasive, certainly, but not untruthful. "You may use a knife to peel a piece of fruit or to kill someone. So if I have a knife in my hand, what does it mean? It depends on the observer's point of view."
At Stepnogorsk about 20 years ago, the Soviet military flung up a huge bio-weapons factory on the Kazakh steppe in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, which the Soviet Union had signed in 1972, joining the United States and more than a hundred other nations. On the site today, Yuriy Rufov is the director of an enterprise called Biomedpreparat, which is a big name for a little company. Except for Rufov and a few aides, huddling in their coats in a bare, unheated office building the subzero morning we visited, Biomedpreparat doesn't exist. It has no factory, no machinery, no laboratories.
In the Soviet era, Stepnogorsk was a "secret city," one of 30 or so locations that did not appear on maps, and the plant, part of the Soviet biotechnology program known as Biopreparat, manufactured anthrax for the military. Since 1996 the United States has spent 2.5 million dollars to turn most of the vast plant into rubble. Washington also agreed to help Biomedpreparat convert what remains into a pharmaceuticals factory and get the former staff back to work. That hasn't happened, to Rufov's frustration.
Rufov insisted that he and his colleagues wouldn't easily offer their services to other governments. "We were all educated to believe in the rightfulness of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. Going to work in the Middle East would go against everything we spent most of our lives believing in."
Yet thousands of those who were the Soviet Union's elite—granted the best of salaries, housing, food, schools, free vacations on the Black Sea, and other privileges that the state could offer—are today unemployed and barely able to put bread on the table. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that some of them, no matter how loyal or patriotic, could eventually be forced to sell what they know.
Of the 680 scientists and technicians who worked at the Stepnogorsk plant in its final days, said Rufov, 500 accompanied the departing Red Army to Russia; 112 remained in Stepnogorsk, paid by the United States to dismantle the plant; 16 were engaged in monitoring contamination of the ruins, also on the U.S. payroll; and 52 were working for a new medical manufacturing company nearby. According to Rufov, only a few former employees have ever gone to work abroad. Chief among them was Stepnogorsk's onetime director, a Kazakh named Kanatjan Alibekov.
A Soviet army physician and biologist, Alibekov fled to the United States in 1992 and filled the government's ear with chilling stories about the Soviet bioweapons program. His crowning achievement had been the perfection of Anthrax 836, the U.S.S.R.'s most powerful weapons-grade anthrax, four times more deadly than its predecessor. Made operational in 1987, it is an extremely fine, silky, grayish brown powder that can drift invisibly for miles.
Today, his name Americanized to Ken Alibek, he is chief scientist at a biodefense company in northern Virginia, as well as a professor of microbiology at a local university. The day I visited Alibek in his office, he looked like most American academics, wearing a black turtleneck and skimming a research grant application.
As eventually happens to some defectors, Alibek has been chided by his former CIA handlers for exaggerating information in an attempt to enhance his value. Yet when I asked him about former Soviet bioweaponeers now working abroad, his reply was matter-of-fact.
"Most are in Russia," he said in heavily accented English. "Some are here in the U.S.; a few are in Europe and Asia. There may be a couple in Iran, but if so, we're not talking big numbers. Very few." But, he added, "A few is all it takes."
If, in fact, unemployed former Soviet specialists are giving in to temptation, Russians charge that Americans must accept a piece of the blame. "The Americans were in a great hurry to destroy," Rufov said bitterly as he showed Lynn and me Alibek's old facility back in Kazakhstan. "But now that it's time to rebuild, they're dragging their feet. Our people can't wait much longer."
Rufov led us through the ruins of the former anthrax factory—ten sprawling, white, concrete buildings on the scale of a Detroit auto plant. First we pulled disposable white coveralls and respirators over our parkas, since there still could be faint traces of anthrax inside.
"The construction is extraordinary," Rufov said, pride evident in his deep voice, as we climbed the stairs of Building 221, the main structure, a hundred feet high and two foot-ball fields long. We stepped gingerly around shattered beakers, yellowed magazines and safety manuals, and drained vodka bottles.
"No government could afford this today," said Rufov. "Of course, 90 percent of Soviet industry was connected with the military. That's what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union."
On the top level I walked into Alibek's old office. The mandatory Soviet-era portrait of Lenin was gone from the wall, and so was the glass in the windows. A bird lay dead on the floor, frozen solid.
The plant's 5,000-gallon (18-cubic meter) fermenting tanks, all ten of them, had been removed, decontaminated, and destroyed. Left behind were gaping holes in the concrete. Laborers in felt boots trundled out heavy valves and pipes. In a former life they were biologists. "The change has been so radical for them," said Rufov. "They're suffering. We all are."
In Washington former Senator Nunn is sympathetic. "The human side of reducing the WMD threat has been the least tended to and the least successful, but it's also the most difficult," said Nunn, who now heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization he co-founded with fellow Georgian Ted Turner. Although the United States contributes to keeping 30,000 former Soviet scientists financially afloat, some members of Congress believe they're being asked to bankroll the Russian military.
"They think that the Russians are still working on new weapons," said Nunn, "and by relieving pressure on another part of their economy, we'd in effect be paying them to expand their military."
They're wrong, says Nunn. "The homeland defense of the United States begins in the former Soviet Union. And any member of the Congress who doesn't understand that, especially since 9/11, well, I just don't get it."
After a year's worth of finger-pointing and a historic reordering of national priorities, many uncertainties remain about how much the United States—or any society—can do to protect itself from WMD.
Beyond giving intelligence and law enforcement agencies new equipment and new powers, tightening security at our borders, training hospital staffs for outbreaks, and building vaccine stocks—all belatedly under way—almost nothing can be done to prevent a biological weapons attack. So what else can we do?
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a former public health commissioner for New York City who now directs biological programs for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, advocates moving forward at full speed.
"We need to improve intelligence on bioweapons by enlisting medical and scientific experts in the effort, and we need to improve security in our research labs. We also have to prepare for the worst by strengthening the public health infrastructure—educating health care providers to recognize unusual diseases, and upgrading our health care system to respond to a mass-casualty event. If we were attacked today, our system would still be overwhelmed."
As part of what Hamburg describes as "the good news," the Bush Administration is calling on Congress to approve the largest public health budget in history, including the acquisition of enough smallpox vaccine by 2003 to inoculate all Americans if needed.
Even these dramatic steps may not protect the United States, or any nation, from the full weight of the terror in bioterrorism. Americans learned a year ago that a few anthrax spores, or even a spoonful of talcum powder, sprinkled in an envelope can do a huge amount of damage.
Only five people died from the genuine article, which they inhaled from mailed envelopes. Yet Washington, D.C., and other East Coast cities were thrown into high anxiety. Military surplus shops reported a run on gas masks—none of which would have been effective unless the buyers put them on immediately and kept them on 24 hours a day until the all-clear was sounded. "Unlike with nukes, not even an actual event is needed," a federal intelligence expert said of the anthrax scare. "Just a simple hoax, and you can have mass panic and economic upheaval."
While the world watches its most likely target, the United States, mobilize to deal with this new threat—hoping that the long night will never come—many in the antiterrorism field are disconsolate.
"Because we've had what appears to be a quick, high-tech victory in Afghanistan, we're back to putting our faith in technology as the quick fix," the intelligence source told me. "But gadgets like bio and chem sensors are only one tool in your kit. If I'm your adversary, I know you have sensors and I'll find a way to defeat them. We still haven't learned the hard lesson—that we're no longer different from the rest of the world."
Nor does the rest of the world seem to have learned its own lessons. Those who've survived attacks, experiments, and accidents—in the former Soviet Union, in Japan, in Iran and Iraq—are scorned and ignored. It's as if the things that they talk about are just too terrible to hear.
Certainly, as Lynn and I traveled the world on this assignment, there were times when what we saw and heard became unbearable: the freakish human fetuses preserved in jars of formaldehyde in Kazakhstan; the Utah downwinder riddled with cancer; the middle-aged Russian brothers with the minds of infants.
In Iran, for example, there's Sasan Safavian. Gaunt and fragile, he speaks with great difficulty, his words choked off again and again by a cough that forces claws of pain deep into his chest. Propped on a cushion against the wall of his Tehran apartment, he holds a bony hand to the faint sunlight filtering through a curtained window to shield his sensitive eyes. In the past 18 months he has lost 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Safavian began dying in 1983 when, as a 16-year-old ambulance volunteer, he was caught not once but twice in Iraqi poison gas attacks.
"Frogs and birds were lying dead all over the ground. . . . My throat was bleeding, and blood-filled blisters appeared all over my body. . . . We had no gas masks, and we hadn't been trained. We didn't believe one Muslim country could use chemical weapons against other Muslims."
In Russia 80-year-old Olga Vyatkina leans heavily on a cane, staring dry-eyed at the snow-banked gravestone where she buried her only child, Alexander, in 1979. He was 27. Alexander was one of 68 known victims of the world's worst outbreak of inhalational anthrax. He collapsed on the street a few blocks from Compound 19, in the city of Sverdlovsk, where the Soviet Army secretly produced anthrax as part of the U.S.S.R.'s vast bioweapons program.
"They wrote 'sepsis' on the death certificate. Then we heard rumors that it had been anthrax. My husband and I were terribly afraid. Our son had spent the night before he died at home with us. The people in the morgue refused to dress the body, so we did it ourselves. To this day, no one has ever told us that anthrax killed him. They gave us 40 rubles, and I used it to buy a dress for the funeral."
And in the United States there's Preston Truman, who began chemotherapy and radiation therapy for lymphoma as a teenager. Today, at 50, he suffers from a collection of excruciating diseases, which he mocks as "moans, groans, stones, and bones." At his tiny farmhouse in Idaho, Truman's earliest memory is of a morning in 1955. It was in Enterprise, Utah, and he was three, sitting on his father's knee before dawn. Together they watched the sky explode. A nuclear bomb test had gone off 100 miles (160 kilometers) upwind at the Nevada Test Site. Many more were to follow.
"Later on I remember people talking mysteriously about all the cancer in town: Did it come from drinking too much soda pop? You know, that kind of thing. Guess they just couldn't believe that their own government would do this to them. And then lie about it. I mean, hell, this is the United States."
These far-flung people, who've never met, never heard of each other, share a relationship none wants. They're victims of weapons of mass destruction. And like Truman, they've all been lied to—still are—by the institutions they were taught to trust. "The minute a government crosses the threshold and goes nuclear, it has to start lying," said Truman. Or crosses the line into any kind of WMD.
After ignoring him for four decades, the United States finally acknowledged that it made Truman and others sick, although the compensation it offered would cover only a fraction of their medical expenses. The Russian government still denies that Olga Vyatkina's son breathed in deadly anthrax spores released from Compound 19. And the government of Iran gives Sasan Safavian inhalers and bags of pills, even though there is no cure for the damage Iraqi chemicals inflicted on his body.
What goes for these three victims applies to tens of thousands more: the hibakusha, or atomic bomb victims, of Japan; the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam; the Kurdish poison gas victims of Halabjah in northern Iraq; the ill-informed test site workers and the residents of quiet neighborhoods downwind from those sites whom we met in Kazakhstan and in Utah.
It even applies to the unafflicted. My wife was outside Tokyo's Kamiyacho subway station in 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas on the train she usually rode to work. She walked away unharmed, but it's never far from our minds. On September 11 we lost a friend in the World Trade Center; another was killed at the Pentagon. Many people reading these words have similar stories to tell. Even those who haven't lost someone can't stop thinking about it. In a very real sense, whenever weapons of mass death are unleashed, all humanity is downwind.
In September 1957, on the day Preston Truman started kindergarten, the teacher passed out pocket-size booklets prepared by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to assure the children and their parents that all was well.
A cartoon shows a bowlegged cowboy holding a Geiger counter going "click, click, click." Over the cowboy's ten-gallon hat is a giant question mark—just like the one that floats over all of us these days, roiling our thoughts with vague FBI terrorist warnings, prompting prayers that a real Dark Winter is not about to descend. "We can expect many reports that Geiger counters were going crazy here today," says Truman's atomic booklet. "Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you."
If only that were possible.