Smallpox as a blowback weapon

Al-Qaeda couldn’t attack the US with smallpox without facing a very high risk of causing a worldwide epidemic. That’s good news, but only if al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups know it. Let’s spread the word.

I’ve made something of a fuss in this space over what I take to be our extreme vulnerability to a smallpox attack, and what I therefore take to be the extreme fecklessness of the current administration in not starting a mass vaccination program.

Tonight Tom Schelling pointed out to me something obvious once noticed, but largely undiscussed so far: given international air travel patterns, any substantial smallpox outbreak in the United States would quickly spread worldwide. That makes it an almost useless weapon except in the hands of someone who doesn’t care whom he kills. The casualty rate in poor countries would be much higher than that in rich countries. So a smallpox attack on the US would, if successful, be more likely to kill the attackers and their neighbors than it would to kill Americans.

Well, that’s certainly encouraging news. But Schelling went on to make the next point, equally obvious once stated: the fact that smallpox is a blowback weapon does us no good unless the leadership of, for example, al-Qaeda is aware of that fact. And since it seems to have escaped the notice of lots of smart people in this country, we can’t confidently assume that it will occur to someone planning such an attack.

Conclusion: the U.S. should sponsor a WHO conference on the risks of bioterror, and make sure that the conference report includes a strong statement of the point that smallpox, at least, isn’t a locally containable weapon.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: