Author: Mattox, John Mark
Date published: November 1, 2010
BIOTERROR IN THE 21ST CENTURY: Emerging Threats in a New Global Environment, Daniel M. Gerstein, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2009, 272 pages, $49.49.
That the world is well along its journey into the "information age" is apparent to even the most pedestrian observer of human activity. Preschoolers can now communicate across the world and access data of myriad kinds in ways their grandparents could never have imagined. However, as Daniel Gerstein points out, advances in information technology are not the only things happening at warp speed today. No less significant are the advances in biotechnology. Indeed, future generations may characterize the present day not as the "information age" but rather as the "age of biotechnology."
The potential presented by biotechnological advances for the eradication of disease and the extension of human life is so vast as to render the present-day technology a watershed in human history. However, the increased potential for positive outcomes is matched and, unless we are vigilant, could be surpassed by the potential for negative outcomes from the misuse of new-found knowledge. Gerstein characterizes the present day as the confluence of globalization, terrorism, and biotechnology. He describes in detail the fine line between legitimate and illegitimate use of the capacity to affect living organisms. In particular, he focuses on the possible misuse of biotechnology by terrorists, both their likelihood of acquiring the technical wherewithal and their likely motivations for doing so.
Gerstein does not paint a hopeless, doomsday picture. Rather, he urges active engagement and constant vigilance to anticipate and counter the bioterrorist threat. He argues that the reader can expect such an approach to yield a reasonable degree of success, though not eliminating the chance of a biological attack or a manmade epidemic of sizable proportion. He does not view bioterrorism as posing an existential threat to the United States in the way that some have viewed nuclear weapons.
Bioterror in the 21st Century begins with a discussion of globalism, places the two-sided coin of biotechnology and biowarfare within that globalized setting, and discusses homeland defense in light of these circumstances. He then considers the possible motivations for terrorist use of biotechnology through various game-theory constructs. Gerstein makes a particularly thoughtprovoking observation: "Since it is manifestly impossible to guard against every biological threat, some of our most aggressive protective efforts should be directed toward understanding terrorist motivations vis-à-vis biological warfare."
Perhaps Gerstein's greatest service is to assemble a compendium of useful charts, tables, and diagrams from government and academic sources. His bibliography identifies key contemporary documents and studies in the rapidly emerging public policy field. Although the book suffers from occasional redundancies and data presentations without an immediately obvious point, Gerstein's conclusions largely tie together these loose ends. Bioterror in the 21st Century raises a topic that the nation and the world ignores at its peril. Those of us still languishing in the information age would do well to inform ourselves.
COL John Mark Mattox, Ph.D.,
Kirtland Air Force Base,