Funny You Should Ask: Bioterrorism response brings back memories of nuclear fears

Had Mohave County paid almost $400,000 of local rather than federal funds for a bioterrorism department, county supervisors might have had to begin watching how they handled their mail.

The sudden discovery of that much money in a tight budget might have provoked a threat from a number of sources: county employees, as payback for the hand-wringing about pay raises; the county's finance director, who already defended a budget windfall when fiscal year-old accounting revealed simply that some departments had not spent all their budgets; or residents opposed to sales or any other tax besides what they pay on their property.

The county's hiring of bioterrorism coordinator for its new department had an odd feel, even if the news was meant to be as innocuous as the hiring of a public works director.

That bioterrorism suddenly was a concern to Mohave County produced a glib chuckle, which gave way to movie-style notions of authorities pursuing hijackers with a shipment of virus used to make a vaccine, or a train or tanker truckload chemical agent, across the desert.

I had reserved the satire for shipments through Kingman to the nation's only nuclear waste site 10 years hence.

Bioterrorism coordinators abound amid the agencies President Bush wants to combine into the leviathan bureaucracy for homeland security; such experts, at least during the past 13 months, would not seem out of place even at statehouses or in city halls such as New York's.

But in Mohave County, where the greatest daily threat to public health might be turning left onto Stockton Hill Road, or adventuresome rattlesnakes, a bioterrorism threat seems as incongruent to our lives as the Cold War possibility that mutually assured destruction of nuclear war easily could occur – a notion at once logical and beyond comprehension.

Then again, the people paid to worry about such exigencies try to keep them as far from everyday thought as possible.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, municipalities hired or appointed civil defense directors as world events made nuclear war increasingly possible.

The unimaginable almost became imaginable during the Cuban Missile Crisis 40 years ago this month.

Educated guesses about the effect of a nuclear war on a population ranged from resignation to numbness, glimpsed by the 1959 film, "On the Beach," or a made-for-television movie in 1983, "The Day After," to name a few.

With a fatal epidemic spreading across the country a lot less suddenly than a nuclear attack could destroy it, the human condition of anxiety festers.

But even without that contagion of fear, commerce would ground to a halt with the disruption of supply chains, services and workers themselves because of illness, inconvenience - or security reasons.

A vial of smallpox snuck past immigration officials can have as great an effect on a pedestrian society as a boatload of nuclear missiles turned around by a naval blockade could have on a tinder dry geopolitical climate (unless the guy who sent the missiles is bluffing).

Nuclear annihilation is still a threat - only the politics of the former Soviet Union have changed.

But mutually assured destruction is no longer the institutional threat it once was.

Coming so soon after terrorist attacks with jetliners, the mysterious anthrax incidents in New York, Florida and Washington, D.C., last fall awakened Americans to the institutional threat of bioterrorism.

And, indeed, people such as Mohave County's bioterrorism coordinator are in place not to bring hijackers of nerve agents to justice but to prevent bureaucratic paralysis in case of biological or chemical attack, even if the next level of bureaucracy, the state of Arizona, doesn't have the money to pay for doing it, either.

In the meantime, our own domestic brand terrorism continues unabated, manifested by schools within razor-wire fences, scolding adults beaten by rampaging youths into comas - and snipers.