Monday, January 09, 2006

Gilding the Lily

There's exciting news from the mist-shrouded frontlines of the War on Terror:

AL-QAEDA is recruiting suicide bombers who are infected with the AIDS virus, according to documents revealed to the Sunday Mirror.

Terror chiefs are also targeting fanatics who suffer other lethal blood diseases such as hepatitis and dengue fever in order to increase their "kill rate" from an explosion. The chilling new threat is revealed in papers distributed to British military camps in Iraq and across Europe.
If this story is "chilling," it's mainly because the rhetorical strategy of portraying one's enemy as an ambulatory pestilence has a particularly unwholesome pedigree. (Apropos of which, some readers may recall the Right's earlier attempt to suggest that immigrants are spreading leprosy within the USA.)

As evidence that this story is dubious, let's consider dengue fever. It's debilitating enough that the US Army has long considered it a promising incapacitating agent in biowarfare. People who have it are contagious for only about six days, so if you want to hire a suicide bomber to infect people with it, you'd need to find someone who's not only contagious, but is able to walk - and perhaps run - despite high fever and crippling, arthritis-like joint pain (this disease is also known as "breakbone fever"). Even if you managed that, the chances that you could infect bystanders by blowing up a dengue fever carrier in their vicinity are rather slim, not least because it can't be transmitted in aerosol form. And even if you did infect people, it's far from certain that they'd die of the infection.

The hemorrhagic form of dengue is a good deal more deadly, but it's also a good deal more inconvenient for the would-be bomber. Still, a word to the wise: If you see someone who looks like a member of al-Qaeda crawling painfully down the street with blood pouring from every orifice, watch out! He could be a suicide bomber.

As for AIDS and hepatitis...well, what else is new? Even if a suicide bomber doesn't have hepatitis or AIDS, there's no guarantee that one or more of his victims won't; any victim's remains could possibly infect someone else. That's going to be a danger in any situation involving flying bone splinters and spattering blood (e.g., dentistry). But my personal view is that in most regions where suicide bombers operate, the wounded will face more immediate and faster-moving complications than AIDS...septicemia, for instance.

If this story came from a source within al-Qaeda, it seems pretty obvious that it's propaganda, and that it's intended to increase the anxiety of soldiers in Iraq, many of whom are wallowing daily in human gore. If it came from a government source, my earlier observations apply: this is probably another example of propaganda that strives to make the enemy seem emotionally equivalent with disease and contagion.

I tend to favor the latter theory. Back in 2002, the hard-right propagandist Michael Ledeen was promoting the hepatitis-infected suicide bomber meme in the pages of the National Review, although he didn't specifically say that the bombers had been been chosen because of their infections. Other commentators, such as Alan Dershowitz, took that ball and ran with it:
Recently, Israeli doctors expressed concern that the blood of some of the suicide bombers, which splatters all over the scene and is touched by medical personnel, as well as their bones, which penetrate the bodies of the victims, might contain hepatitis or the AIDS virus, raising the fear that terrorist leaders could be turning suicide bombers into biological warfare carriers either by injecting them or selecting carriers as suicide bombers.
Thanks to ambiguous phrasing (which I'm sure is accidental), the implication here is that the spectre of deliberately infected bombers was being raised by doctors themselves, something for which I've found no evidence at all.

The Sunday Mirror provides no source for the documents that are currently being "distributed" to British military bases. But the fact that virtually identical versions of this story were making the rounds three years ago strongly suggests that this "new" finding is fraudulent.

4 comments:

spinoza said...

Don't most emergency medical personnel take protective measures regardless? This idea was probably thought up by some PsycOp idiot in the Pentagon to scare us.

Eli said...

If this story came from a source within al-Qaeda, it seems pretty obvious that it's propaganda, and that it's intended to increase the anxiety of soldiers in Iraq, many of whom are wallowing daily in human gore. If it came from a government source, my earlier observations apply: this is probably another example of propaganda that strives to make the enemy seem emotionally equivalent with disease and contagion.

Well, they do have kind of a symbiotic propaganda relationship, really...

Hm, my verification word is "CSI Jr."...

Phila said...

Don't most emergency medical personnel take protective measures regardless? This idea was probably thought up by some PsycOp idiot in the Pentagon to scare us.

I don't know what goes on with medics on the frontlines in Iraq. I'd like to think they have the best possible protective gear when they're wading through the aftermath of a bombing...but knowing BushCo, I suspect they don't.

I agree with you, though...I suspect it's pure psy-ops. I think they took the legitimate medical concern over the infectivity of biological "shrapnel" in suicide bombings, and realized that they could get some PR mileage out of it.

Also, hepatitis is not only very common in the Middle East, it's on the rise in Baghdad since the Occupation. So, in the best-case scenario, we get to blame the upswing in hepatitis on a diabolical new scheme from al-Qaeda, instead of on our inability, after three years, to provide Iraqis with clean drinking water.

GrrlScientist said...

This sounds like another attempt to increase the terror among civilians that results from every suicide-bomber attack.

GrrlScientist