Weapons of Mass Destruction:controlling the hype

The key aspect that has always differentiated Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from conventional warfare is the element of terror. Ignoring for the moment a nuclear detonation which is clearly in a different league, then radiological, biological and chemical weapons are in a class of their own in this respect. Like the James Thurber grandmother who feared that leaving a wall socket switched on, unplugged, would leave electricity dripping invisibly all over the house, these WMD are invisible and undetectable without highly specialized equipment. We fear them. Those that suffered and survived at Halabja in Iraq reported seeing people, birds and animals simply falling over, convulsed, for no apparent reason. The realization that they were under attack through an invisible means only dawned when they, themselves, became ill.

Journalists have been quick to pick up on the terror aspect of WMD. The media, especially the UK tabloid media, seems to have done its level best to frighten people witless over the prospect of these weapons. Headlines like 'Anthrax in your duty frees' and 'Chemical scare on the tube' are typical. This type of journalism is a feature of the UK media which does not occur in quite the same way elsewhere. It is symptomatic not only of the generally sensationalist milieu in which the UK media operates but of the constant drive to oversimplify highly complex topics into soundbitesized descriptions for public consumption. Contrast this with other national media, especially in the US, France, Russia and Germany, where the coverage has generally been more measured and informative. The Arabic written media comes nearest to the UK tabloid descriptive metaphor, simply because that is its natural style.

There is a palpable increase in the public's baseline anxiety level, caused primarily by the actuality of events on and after 9/11 but fuelled constantly by unrelenting pressure to fill air and print space twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The media will plead hundreds of audience surveys that apparently demand this type of service. An effect of this is a constant imperative by researchers to identify a 'talking head', willing to appear on TV or supply a quote to fill a short slot. I regularly experience this at times of acute media interest in a WMD-related issue whereby every channel under the sun is after a so-called expert to appear and I find myself repeating the same commentary several times. A danger of these video snapshots is the lack of balance that can occur when an expert with an axe to grind or an eye for the sensational headline is invited before the camera.

It is not all bad news. Terror is the key feature of WMD but terror, itself, is a function of the unknown. It is knowledge that helps counter fear and education is the other side of the media coin. The relentless background coverage by the broadsheets and by feature programmes on radio, television and the web is being slowly absorbed by the population. They understand how VX works on the central nervous system; how ricin makes you ill and why alpha particles are highly dangerous if ingested. This information may cause their anxiety level to rise further. However, when it is set in the wider context, when ranges and quantities are discussed, for example, they begin to see the most important point of all, namely that Weapons of Mass Destruction have many limitations. WMD effectiveness is constrained by factors like the weather, the quantities required to achieve an effect and the dangers imposed on perpetrators in getting these materials to where they can cause an effect.

The three deaths caused by the anthrax 'weapon' in the US in October 2001 could hardly be called 'mass destruction'. WMD is a description coined in the US by the many think-tanks that advise the US federal government and whose commentary also gets widespread media coverage. It would not be the first time that these organizations have overegged the cake. Vested interests within the Pentagon and other federal departments are content to see the dangers emphasized to assure the maintenance of countermeasure funding streams. There is a widely held view on this side of the Atlantic that the actual threat is much lower than perceived.

Here is not the place to rehearse all the arguments leading to the fact that the WMD threat to the UK has increased slightly. I emphasize slightly. It is the public's perception of the heightened danger that has risen off the scale, fuelled by the media. However, there is another key factor which has contributed to this increase in public threat perception. The UK government has been extremely reluctant to come clean and tell the public what the real risk is. Why do they remain silent? There may be three reasons for this. Firstly, there is the traditional Whitehall concern about alarming the public. This seems completely unjustified, as the public is well aware of the general effects of WMD, thanks, as I have explained, to the variety of library material available in the media. In fact citizens are mildly surprised at the very few preparedness exercises being undertaken in our cities. Rather than being alarmed, the public would see well-publicized exercises as an entirely acceptable means of proving responses, notwithstanding the brief interruption to movement and commerce. Drills, involving the volunteers, would increase public confidence in the ability of government and the emergency services to cope. Secondly, planning top-down responses to a WMD/terrorist threat cuts across all the Whitehall boundaries. Every government department has a justified interest. This is particularly true of biological warfare (BW). Both CW and radiological events can be considered local events. 'Local' may be very large but it pales into insignificance against BW. Once a BW event is realized, it is instantly not a local, nor even a regional event; it is global. Therefore, BW really does involve every single central and local government department in reacting to it. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the myriad cross-governmental committees required to develop reactions have taken a long time to go public. There is a third, cultural, aspect which is that WMD have traditionally been one of the most secretive areas of defence. This goes back a long way and a study of the Westinghouse media campaign of the 1950s to persuade the US public to accept the benefits of nuclear power reveals that the information given out was severely restricted by the government, on security grounds. Most Western governments have treated WMD affairs as highly secret and not to be aired lightly.

Nevertheless, Government reluctance to 'go public' is unforgivable. It is not surprising that media has filled the information vacuum with sensationalism whilst keeping pressure on the government, quite rightly, to say something. That said, the government is not in the business of speculation and may feel it has the luxury of saying nothing if there is nothing concrete to say. Contrast this with the case of the Washington sniper. Here, Chief Moose of the Maryland Police was on the media everyday, even if he had nothing to say. Surveys indicated that the public found this reassuring despite the lack of concrete information and the media felt content at a regular opportunity to add background.

In summary, WMD issues appear to be a nightmare for government without good reason. It is the case that, as the media becomes more 'expert', the material being promulgated is becoming more informative, balanced and reassuring. It is our responsibility as practitioners in the field to make every effort to ensure that it is constantly placed in context.

John Eldridge is Editor, Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence

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