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Response to bioterrorism

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 09 February 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:362

Terror weapons are regarded as weapons of mass destruction

  1. Meng-Kin Lim, associate professor (
  1. Department of Community, Occupational and Family Medicine, National University of Singapore, 117597 Singapore
  2. Department of Public Health, Lothian NHS Board, Edinburgh EH8 9RS
  3. Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin, 777 South Mills Street, Madison, WI 53715, USA
  4. Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, University of Chicago, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, MC 4028, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
  5. Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Sheffield S10 2JF

    EDITOR—Wessely et al speculate that a major reason why “armies have generally acquiesced in international treaties to contain” biological and chemical agents is these agents are “particularly ineffective as military weapons [and] have only limited uses.”1 This piece of reasoning does not do justice to the intelligence and serious intent of the drafters and signatories of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the 1972 Convention on Biological and Toxin Weapons, and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, nor does it explain why spears and stones are not similarly prohibited.

    Terror weapons (biological, chemical, and nuclear) are so called not because they are capable of wreaking psychological destruction far in excess of their actual destructive capacity but because their use is considered inherently abhorrent. Somehow, in the collective psyche of our civilised world, killing and maiming with conventional weapons has always been considered more acceptable and less inhumane. Why should that be so?

    Unthinkable or not, the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent spread of deadly anthrax by civilian post in the United States have upset our mental equilibrium and jolted our complacency. We suddenly realise that international treaties do not bind terrorist bands—they apply only to sovereign states—and international opprobrium will not constrain the individual with a bent mind. Numbed by new talk of a “different” war, and stalked by ominous microbes and suspicious canisters lurking in every shadow, the entire civilised world feels nauseous not because of mass sociogenic illness but because the resort to these weapons proves that, despite all the signs pointing to the progress of the species, man's inhumanity to man has not diminished.

    Why do biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have such an unspeakable quality? Far from being ineffective and limited in use, they invoke feelings of revulsion and strike terror in our minds precisely …

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