On War #305: The Future is Now

by William S. Lind
19 May 2009

For years, I have warned in these columns and elsewhere that the future weapon of mass destruction we should most fear is not a nuke. Rather, it is a genetically engineered plague, a plague no one has ever seen before and against which no one has any immunity. In the time it would take to identify the new disease, develop a vaccine, distribute the vaccine and have it become effective, modern societies could suffer death rates equivalent to those of the Black Death: up to 2/3 of the population.

Regrettably, it appears that dread future has now arrived. The May 12 Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story titled “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein.”

In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage …

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes.

Developing nuclear weapons requires vast facilities. Even so significant a country as Iran must strain to its limits to design, build and operate the complex industrial plants required. The costs run in the billions of dollars.

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal writes of the woman in Massachusetts

She’s got a DNA “thermocycler” bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a Styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage.

As usual, the Internet plays the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice in this unfolding nightmare:

The (biohacking) movement has made big strides recently thanks to the commercial availability of synthetic DNA. This genetic material, normally found inside the nucleus of cells, can now easily be purchased online. That provides any amateur with the ingredients for constructing an organism.

The WSJ reassuringly notes that the government is interested in all this.

The E. coli manipulator got a phone call from a government security contractor:  How did she build that lab? Did she know other people creating new life forms at home?

The woman, a Ms. Aull, says the worries are overblown. DIY biologists are trying to “build a slingshot,” she says, “and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?”

Well, my dear, the fact is that you and your fellow biohackers have moved on to nuclear weapons. Or, as I fear, something even more dangerous than nuclear weapons. One little “oopsie” in a basement lab could inadvertently unleash a plague.

In their collective hubris, modern people seem to have forgotten what the plague did. It brought down a whole civilization, the Middle Ages. So vast and terrible were its effects that children still sing about it:

Ring around the rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
One, two, three and
We all fall down.

The rosie was a rose-shaped, red blotch, often with a ring around it, that was one of the first symptoms showing a person had caught the plague. The posies were sweet-smelling herbs; people thought breathing through them might ward off the disease. One, two, three and we all fall down – dead.

It’s nice to know the Feds are paying some attention to what is happening here. But what are jihadi biohackers cooking up? What’s brewing in Columbian drug labs? Anything available on the Internet is available everywhere.

A calm, measured, thoughtful response to biohacking would be to run around madly in one’s underwear screaming “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” It is impossible to overstate this threat.

What can we do about it? Probably nothing. Only students of history, who know what the Black Death did to Medieval Europe, will understand what is at stake. Since World War I, and in some ways since the onset of the mis-named Enlightenment, the Modern Age has been folding back on itself, creating self-amplifying feedback loops of ever-greater destructive power. But only Cassandra can see it happening.

One of the few effective defenses the Middle Ages had against the Black Death was immurement: when plague appeared in a household, the house was bricked up, with the inhabitants inside. Some towns saved themselves that way. Should we immure biohackers? Absolutely.

Of course we won’t, nor will we do anything until it is too late. One, two, three and we all fall down.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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