The original episodes of the Fear Factor, that gross-em-out Fox reality show, derived much of their viewing pleasure from exposing the bogeyman still lurking in the id of well-adjusted and pleasantly buffed-out adults. There was little real danger of death while walking on an exposed plank in a canyon lined with safety nets and suspension wires, or eating from a tub of goo meant to smell and taste like rancid eggs. The wedge that separated the pretty things from one another was Fear
. We, the willing audience, watched because we knew our own limitations, our susceptibilty to employ cognitive dissonance when our instinctual proto-Darwinian survival kits kept flashing red.
This same strategy seems to now dominate the very basic functioning of the White House. But this time, it's not a game, it's not a "reality show," it is what a government looks like that has abandoned the basic precepts of democracy and instead decided that everything is a means to an end, and the end is power, the power to stay in control. I could offer many examples but two recent events illustrate the point perfectly well: (i) vaccine stockpiling and (ii) weapons in Iraq. Both are examples of White House policy that exploits the common decision making lapse to consider the "danger" of an event by taking into account the magnitude of its consequences without incorporating the probability of the event. It is why few people will jump out of an airplane with a parachute (if something goes wrong it is inevitably fatal) but many people will drive in a car without a seatbelt (if something goes wrong you might just get a bump on the noggin).
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC)
, the anthrax scare of later 2001 resulted in 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths. Anthrax is a nasty bacterial disease, with mortality rates anywhere from 20% to 75% depending on the type of infection. It is also non-contagious and requires sophisticated technology to render in a powdered form capable of inflicting mass casualties. Nonetheless, according to the Washington Post
, the White House decided to
order an additional 75 million doses, enough to vaccinate at least 25 million people. Added to the 2 million doses already on order, as much as 9 percent of the country's population would be covered. The stockpile is projected to cost at least $700 million on top of nearly $200 million already spent, a congressional report said. The two companies involved, VaxGen Inc. of Brisbane, Calif., and Avecia Ltd. of Manchester, England, are racing to scale up their factories for rapid vaccine production.
There are many reports that (i) the vaccine is not effective; (ii) the vaccine is not safe, i.e. many negative side-effects; and (iii) that there's no way we should be spending so much money on a vaccine that will almost certainly never be used. The Washington Post reports
on the subject, as does Dr. Meryl Nass
, Diplomate, American Board of Internal Medicine.
In contrast to the terrifying fear of anthrax stands the administration's tepid response to the yearly outbreak of influenza. For those who don't know, according to the CDC's flu facts
, every year approximately 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu, and approximately 35,000 die of it. The influenza virus is not biological terrorism, it is just one of the many, ordinary diseases that compete every year in the roulette wheel of Darwinian evolution, using humans as a means to persist, year after year after year. There is nothing to spin about flu, there is simply the basic science of generating new vaccines, distributing them, and doing so again and again, neglect as such could lead to many unnecessary flu-related deaths. Perhaps, as Vice President Cheney noted, there is little profit-margin in vaccine making, but I would argue that there's plenty of money to be made in developing vaccines for scary scary diseases (smallpox, anthrax) or exposure to agents that are very unlikely to kil anywhere near as many Americans as the flu.
Where Are All the Weapons
While Charles Delfour and his band of inspectors humveed their way across the Iraq countryside looking for the non-existent weapons that would prove, in hindsight, the necessity of going to war, there were lots of regular, boring munitions lying in dumps, ammo facilities, and warehouses across the country. One of these sites, a storage facility near Baghdad is where 380 tons of high end explosives, tons mind you, not pounds, managed to disappear after the American invasion. This story, Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished from Site in Iraq
is not just another example of a "messy" democracy at work, it is the smoking gun that explains many of the smoking guns our soldiers have had to face in the countryside and cities of Iraq. While we tried to prove the presence of WMD that would scare the beejezus out of regular Americans and make us ever-thankful that George Bush was there to protect us, we forgot to secure the convential weapons that can kill American soldiers.
We knew about this munitions site, but we didn't care to secure it, because it didn't fit the narrative that we were in Iraq to safeguard the world from the ultimate nuclear, biological, or chemical act of terror. Certainly if such weapons had existed then the world would be a lot less safe had they fallen into hands of terrorists. But is the world any safer now that the type of explosives used to take down the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie are now definitely in the hands of terrorists.
Over 3,000 people were killed using box cutters. Approximately 35,000 Americans die annually from the flu. The world is a scary place, but it won't get any safer if we cannot face the mundane ways in which we are in danger. This White House is more interested in writing a horror movie script then it is in protecting its citizens from predictable dangers, and that seems the scariest cut of all.