Many special interests are encouraging fears of terrorism to advance their own dubious causes at public expense. We need to get a grip on our fears and not become victims of our domestic terrorists.
In one of the more egregious efforts at scare-mongering, the anti-nuclear activists at the Nuclear Control Institute ominously declared that "Any nuclear power plant is conceivably vulnerable (to a direct hit from a commercial airliner.)"
The group’s solution is to station National Guard troops and military anti-aircraft units at nuclear power plants until the terrorist threat is "controlled" – that is until there are no more nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Control Institute’s real goal is to frighten the public about nuclear power plants, thereby facilitating its anti-nuclear power agenda.
But such fear-mongering could logically be extended to hundreds—if not thousands—of non-nuclear industrial facilities located near urban or residential areas, particularly plants that make or use hazardous chemicals.
Two thousand people were killed in 1984 by an accidental explosion at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Not much imagination is required to realize that a similar tragedy could happen at a U.S. industrial facility via a hijacked commercial airliner, truck bomb or suicide bomber.
But what should we do about these "conceivable" threats? Enlist legions of National Guardsmen and place ack-ack guns wherever chemicals are stored and used? Hardly.
We are vulnerable in limitless ways and places to a variety of terrorist acts. Those are the chances taken by a free society. We could become a completely paranoid nation that tries to secure every conceivable target of terrorists, but that would necessitate becoming a police state where most of our resources are spent on mostly useless security efforts.
Controlling mass fear, though, may not be so easy for a public that’s been conditioned over the last 40 years to fear everything from diet drinks to cell phones.
One special interest that we unfortunately need to be especially wary of is the public health establishment.
Perceiving gold in the reality of terrorists daring to strike within U.S. borders, the public health establishment is pressing the panic button about the likelihood of an attack involving biological agents such as anthrax, plague, smallpox and botulinum.
Since Sept. 11, media reports and shows have been chock-full of public health officials aided by other so-called "experts"—particularly authors of books on bio-terrorism—spreading alarm about the possibility, if not "likelihood," of impending biological attacks.
Further alarming the public, the public health establishment says we have allowed the public health system to deteriorate over the last several decades. "Our public health infrastructure has decayed to an alarming extent," claims Richard Levinson of the American Public Health Association.
The public health establishment’s solution, of course, is more money—even though taxpayers already spend more than $11 billion annually on terrorism defense and tens of billions of dollars more on other public health efforts.
You might think that out of some minimum respect for the public’s money, the public health establishment would first rearrange its priorities before pleading poverty.
We spend, for example, billions of tax dollars annually chasing phantom health risks from trace levels of chemicals in the workplace and environment. Shouldn’t the real threat of terrorism nudge ahead these imaginary threats on the list of public health priorities?
Tara O’Toole, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, doesn’t think so. O’Toole says money for bio-terrorism shouldn’t be "siphoned" off other public health efforts.
If the public health establishment really believes its own ominous predictions, it should put its money where its mouth is by first reprioritizing its current resources and efforts before asking for more money.
We need to catch our collective breath in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead of falling for special interest agendas and handing a blank check to the public health industry, we need to appraise in a rational manner the threat of the different forms of terrorism and then determine sensible and cost-effective preparations.
If we don’t, our fear will cost us more than any terrorist attack.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).