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From the Editor

You do what you do best, not whatís best to do.

Some murder mysteries are not so much whodunits as whydoits. We know the criminal and the victim—but the motives of the murderer are mystifying. This can be true of murders committed only in thought. The bioweapons developed during the Cold War were never used, but Russian and American scientists devoted their careers to imagining ghastly ways to kill each otherís populations. Why did they do it?

There are innocent explanations. Biological warfare enthusiasts sometimes liken their weapons to nuclear bombs: the programs preserved the biological peace. “All war is horrible, but bioweapons are very effective systems,” says Bill Patrick, the father of the U.S. biowarfare program (see “Cold Warriors,” page 72 of Acumen, Issue 4). “Gatling, the inventor of the machine gun, believed that he was making the world safe, because war would be inconceivably bloody.” But biological weapons were always secret, and after the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, they were illegal. A covert weapons program is not a very reliable deterrent.

American scientists often claim they studied lethal biological agents only in order to develop defenses, and say that if they did build weapons, those weapons were relatively benign. “The U.S. policy was to create incapacitating agents,” says Dr. Patrick. “I could make the case that nonfatal bioweapons are a humane weapon.” But this explanation, also, seems insufficient and, in any case, cannot account for Russian “binary inocularies,” for which treatment of the symptoms of a disease like plague would trigger the blossoming of a second microbe like Ebola.

Like the motives of some prospective murderers, the motivations of bioweaponeers were likely more irrational. Patriotism no doubt played its part: when Ken Alibek, the former chief scientist of the Soviet Unionís Biopreparat program, was recruited by the KGB, he was told, “I have to tell you that there exists an international treaty on biological warfare, which the Soviet Union has signed. But the United States has signed it, too, and we believe they are lying.” In his autobiography, Biohazard, Dr. Alibek writes, “I told [the recruiter] earnestly, that I believed it too... Our survival depended on matching their duplicity.”

Cupidity and fear cannot be discounted, at least among Russian scientists. A Biopreparat scientist and his family enjoyed the privileges of the nomenklatura: good food, a dacha, travel within the Soviet Union. Resignation—if it was accepted—meant poverty in provincial Russia. In many cases, a scientist could not resign. When Ken Alibekís father, a hero of the Great War and himself the son of Kazakstanís commissar of internal affairs, wrote to Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Unionís foreign minister, begging that his son be released from weapons research, he was told, “Dear Comrade Alibekov! I salute you for your services to the Motherland. However, you must know that your son has been chosen to conduct very important work for our country and we cannot spare him.”

But mainly it was their job. They were recruited when they were very young, and once embraced by their dark fraternity, they discovered they had special talents for their profession. John Arquilla, the defense intellectual whom we profile this month (see “Terror and Its Antidote,” page 60 of Acumen, Issue 4), blandly explains their compulsion thus: “We all do what weíre good at.”

In Germs: Biological Weapons and Americaís Secret War, Judith Miller et al. offer a final, related explanation of the motives of Serguei Popov, Ken Alibekís colleague at Biopreparat. “Popov said that he still found the work of his former life attractive, a fascination that deeply troubled him. It was hard, he said, to stop imagining ways to make designer pathogens.” The bad has its own imperatives.

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