In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Bush administration faced many
choices. Among the most fundamental was whether to treat terror as a
criminal or a foreign policy problem. Having chosen the latter, the Bush
administration then sensibly decided to pursue a policy of offense rather
than defense. We would, pace John Quincy Adams, "go abroad searching for
monsters to destroy." (Only because the monsters had invaded and attacked us
first -- and it's virtually certain that Adams would have approved Bush's
But while the focus on offense is very sound, this
administration appears to have neglected homeland defense and surrendered to
political correctness and timidity in its pursuit. Our airport security
system is not serious and everyone knows it. In this, President Bush has
apparently given his one Democratic Cabinet member, Transportation Secretary
Norman Mineta, the lead, and Mineta is politically correct down to his
fingertips. Whether it is refusing to profile passengers or forbidding
pilots to be armed, Mineta has his priorities backward, and so does this
administration on these matters.
Similarly, on the subject of biological warfare defense, the
Bush administration is showing way too much deference to experts on matters
that require not expertise but common sense.
A few months ago, a federal panel of doctors recommended against
immunizing the entire population against smallpox. The doctors noted that a
significant number of Americans, for a variety of reasons (cancer, AIDS)
have diminished immune systems and would therefore not be eligible to take a
vaccine. They were also troubled by the knowledge that in rare cases, the
vaccine itself can be deadly, and estimated that if all 280 million
Americans were vaccinated, 300 might die.
Finally, the panel concluded that the likelihood of biological
attack was low and therefore not worth the risk.
This recommendation was flimsy and poorly considered, and ought
not to have become -- as it has -- the basis for national policy. Doctors
are not qualified to assess political and strategic risks -- at least no
more qualified than anyone else. They don't have any special insight into
the mind of an Al Qaeda terrorist. As for the notion that the
immuno-suppressed population is at a disadvantage regarding vaccines, would
they not be at less risk if everyone around them were vaccinated?
The fear of 300 possible deaths from toxic reactions to the
vaccine is very much the American character today. We rubberize our
playgrounds, pull food off shelves and deny ourselves needed insecticides
(like DDT, which could eliminate the West Nile virus) for fear of small
risks. This Republican administration is sounding as paternalistic as the
How about some free choice? Why not offer the vaccine to
Americans as it becomes available, explain the risks (a one in a million
chance of dying) and let individuals make the choice themselves. Let each
person make his or her own evaluation of the likelihood of a bioterror
attack, and then balance that against the known adverse reactions to the
Instead, the Bush administration is standing by while the
bureaucracy concocts a complex system for responding to an outbreak after it
happens. At that point, and only then, the government proposes to immunize
the entire nation in a matter of days. There are blueprints for using
shopping malls and sports arenas (to take advantage of the parking spaces),
and they're projecting that even if all air travel were grounded in an
emergency, planes carrying vaccine would still fly. The Centers for Disease
Control manual runs to nearly 100 pages, and includes advice on hiring
translators, dealing with extreme weather and distributing consent forms.
Excuse me, but this is ridiculous. It would be impossible and
would result in hardship, frayed nerves and accidents of various kinds.
Further, it won't work. There is simply no way the federal government is
efficient enough to do this. A decade ago, the Clinton administration tried
to federalize just one-third of the childhood immunization market. They
faced no emergency and were dealing with far smaller numbers. And still, the
vaccine the government purchased sat in warehouses without proper
refrigeration and was wasted.
We'd all prefer not to face the choice of risking an
immunization reaction or risking death from biological attack. But reality
is what it is, and the government cannot spare us from it. It can, however,
make matters much worse -- and that is what the current emergency plan would