My husband and I are both New Yorkers; he is a Lieutenant serving as a proud member of New York's Finest. We were here in New York City when the Towers came down on 9/11, memories of which are indelibly etched into our consciousness. In fact, during that time, my husband, was serving in the 1st precinct (the precinct that patrols and manages the activities in lower Manhattan -- including Wall Street ,the World Financial Center and, pre-9/11, the Twin Towers). He had formerly been a beat cop at the Towers and, on 9/11, he found himself assigned to manage the makeshift ground zero morgue -- for more than ten months. This meant sawing body parts to free them from the steel tonnage of rubble, tagging body parts, looking for identifying markers on the limbs and torsos that were still viable and, until a process was formerly put in place, working directly with relatives providing information on lost loved ones as the pieces of formerly vibrant loving human beings were found and pieced together enough for identification and some level of immediate closure. Of course, the pain never goes away and even the knowledge that Osama bin Laden has long since become fish food for the carnivorous sharks, the reality of life interrupted never quite dissipates.
Ever since 9/11 and the aftermath, we were both convinced that nothing could be worse than what we and millions of others across the country lived through on that horrible day. Likewise, we believed that our government would do everything in its power to ensure that our country would never have to face terrorism in such an unprepared and cruel manner again. We would be a country that is prepared. My husband sees this every day in the way that the NYPD is so utterly prepared and vigilant for the worst case scenarios of terrorism.
However, on a Federal level, it appears we were wrong.
As The Huffington Post reported on May 21, "President Barack Obama's administration refused a request from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to position a large cache of medical supplies in his city in case of a terrorist attack or other public health emergency at... [the] NATO Summit..."
While this is one incident, it speaks to a broader mindset -- a worldview owned by an administration more focused on the latest polls and this fall's election than making the tough decisions necessary to keep the American people safe from biological attack.
According to the Bipartisan WMD Research Center's Bio-Response Report Card anthrax and smallpox are the most urgent human biothreats, according to the federal government's national planning scenarios. In the case of a biological attack, the U.S. is dependent on Project BioShield, created in 2004. This Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) program focuses on developing and creating stockpiles of vaccines and treatments to defend against biological threats, particularly smallpox and anthrax.
It was precisely these stockpiles -- which exist to quickly attempt to inoculate citizens before, during and after a biological attack -- that the City of Chicago requested from functionaries within the Obama administration. Their request was denied. This is more than a slight concern, one that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and President Obama need to take much more seriously.
What's worse, past successes under Project BioShield are inching toward failure -- yet further evidence of the administration's out-of-touch ineptitude. Most egregiously, reports have emerged that the Obama administration has chosen not to replenish the United States' stockpile of smallpox vaccine, with no hopes of further replenishment on the horizon. Because of the current formulation, these vaccines have a limited shelf life and will soon expire if not replaced. In the event of a biological attack, left with impotent vaccines, the American people are being placed at grave risk.
Currently, the government has a stockpile of smallpox vaccines developed specifically for the 10 million Americans who suffer from long-term, life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS. Yet the administration has refused to continue its normal procurement process and ensure the next round of the vaccine is in place. And the situation isn't unique to smallpox. Recent action from the administration has hinted at a lack of concern over the anthrax vaccine stockpile as well.
Frustratingly, HHS has already identified the providers of these vaccines but thus far has failed to act -- and the clock is ticking.
As recently reported in Government Security News, Bob Kadlec, former biodefense adviser to the George W. Bush administration and former staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness, was quoted as saying "the slowing in contracting efforts... could signal a significant shift in biodefense policy by the Obama administration because of cost concerns... " In today's climate, it is widely understood that cost concerns are political concerns. For a president who has been dubbed "campaigner in chief," this comes as a disappointing, though not surprising, reality.
What the president and the leadership at HHS need to understand is that even though the federal budget is overextended, replenishing a supply that protects a highly vulnerable population from biological attacks isn't a budget issue. In fact, Congress has already appropriated money for this program; the administration is just refusing to use it.
While there have been victories in the war on terror, for which we should be proud, we should not pretend that we have struck a permanent blow against those who would seek to use biological weapons against us. What we need is urgent movement from the administration to save our existing stockpiles and begin the development of new vaccines and treatments. Our country is still preparing for another group of terrorists to try and gain access to airplane cockpits for suicide missions into our landmarks, but, this time, they won't get past security and, at the worst, won't be able to access the cockpit door. So, great, we all take off our shoes as we radiate our bodies in the TSA's most modern X-Ray machines. All of this so that we can find the next shoe bomber, but we can't fight terrorism by looking in the rearview mirror.
We need to think ahead and realize that the next strike could be one that uses biological weapons designed to kill Americans with viruses and bacteria. Ironically, this type of warfare dates all the way back to before there were modern weapons -- including guns. According to Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, it was in the 6th century BC, that the Assyrians and Persians poisoned drinking wells with a fungus that caused delirium in the enemy. Also, in the same period, the Assyrians hurled decaying disease-carrying toxic carcasses over the protective city walls that were under besiege. Author Adrienne Mayor also details the origins of additional controversial biological-based weaponry such as ancient recipes for arrow poisons, booby traps rigged with plague, petroleum-based combustibles, choking gases, and the deployment of dangerous animals and venomous snakes and insects. These are the seeds of today's modern methods of terrorism. Just because the anthrax scare didn't expand into a major widespread death-producing terroristic Armageddon, doesn't mean it won't happen and this time it could be much worse than the ingenious acts of the combatant factions of more than 2000 years ago.
But, let's get back to today. Without decisive action, we are left with an administration responsible for weakening our nation's defense against biological warfare. Unfortunately, for President Obama, that's not much of a campaign slogan. We have recently learned from a New York Times article titled, "Secret 'kill list' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will," the extent of his involvement in counterterrorism and willingness to be part of the process to "designate terrorists for kill or capture." This is encouraging news, but not enough. We need to be prepared for the worst and to heed the warnings of our advisers in national security positions that being prepared for a biological strike is the best defense. The other option would be devastating because the death toll would be incompressible. President Obama needs to understand that there are thousands of Americans that have been negatively impacted by 9/11 and the aftermath -- a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enough loved ones have been killed, injured, destroyed by PTSD and enough families have been wrecked by the devastating consequences of terrorism and war. President Obama: Let's keep us safe by being prepared -- we can't afford the alternative which would be worse than anything we have seen yet.
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