Waiting for a bus in London in 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian broadcaster for Radio Free Europe, felt a slight twinge in his leg. It was a poisoned pellet that proved fatal, and three days later he died.
Considering his broadcasts much too effective, the Soviets had hired an agent to stab him with an umbrella tipped with ricin, a chemical agent that causes death in tiny amounts. It is much stronger than cobra venom or cyanide and easily obtainable. There is no known antidote.
Ricin is again in the news this week. On the track of the substance, a British policeman was killed by a suspected terrorist he had apprehended in Manchester, and four other police were wounded. So far, police have arrested a few members of a gang who could be involved in producing ricin, and they are searching for others.
This was the first evidence of a possible terrorist attack on Britain since the 9/11 assault on the United States, and it provoked alarm in the country. But ricin, though deadly, is limited. The terrorist has to get close to his victim, as in the case of Mr. Markov. There is no way of using it to cause mass casualties. It remains preminently, the assassin’s tool.
Thus, distinctions must be made among so-called weapons of mass destruction, says Joseph Cirincione, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the recently published “Deadly Arsenals.” Some weapons, he notes, are far more destructive than others.
"We have slipped into this language of weapons of mass destruction, and we unintentionally elevate the strategic importance of chemical weapons certainly and probably biological weapons – terrible weapons but nothing like a nuclear weapon that can destroy a city, that kills not just people but destroys buildings, infrastructure, and is the true mass destruction weapon in a class by itself," Mr. Cirincione said.
Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the U-S Institute of Peace and an authority on biological warfare, agrees that better definition is needed:
"I think weapons of mass destruction are a bit of a misnomer, Mr. Tucker said. "They do apply to nuclear weapons and to biological weapons under certain conditions, but not to chemical weapons, which are actually tactical battlefield weapons and really do not belong in the mass destruction category."
Chemical weapons have been used with brutal effect on the battlefields in the First World War and more recently in the Iran-Iraq war. But Frank Von Hippel, co-director of the program on science and global security at Princeton University, says today there is adequate defense against them in contrast to nuclear weapons.
"With regard to both chemical and biological weapons, if you are talking about attacking armed forces, there are these chem-bio suits, and there are anti-biotics and vaccines and various things you can do to protect yourself," Mr. Von Hippel said. "You can protect yourself to some degree against radioactive fall-out but not against the nuclear blast itself."
Given this protection against chemical assault, Mr. von Hippel questions a policy of retaliating with a nuclear strike, as has been suggested in the case of Iraq. That is another order of magnitude with dire consequences for civilians.
Even if Saddam Hussein resorts to his chemical weapons, Mr. Cirincione says they are no match for the conventional weaponry of the United States and Israel.
"Saddam has nerve gas, mustard gas. These are terrible weapons. They can kill dozens of people, but they do not alter the strategic balance in the area," Mr. Cirincione said. "They do not provide him with any kind of balance to the U-S or other forces. If he had a nuclear arsenal, that changes things dramatically. Right now, with in inspectors on the ground, we are blocking him from proceeding any further on that most deadly program."
In theory at least, biological weapons could be much more harmful than chemical ones. U-S tests in the 1950’s and ‘60’s showed that an agent such as anthrax could be dispersed over a wide area with devastating results. The Soviet Union had an arsenal of missiles with biological agents aimed at the United States
There is no denying the lethal potential of such weaponry, says Kurt Gottfried, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and professor of physics at Cornell University.
"If you had a smallpox epidemic against an unprotected population, you could certainly kill large numbers, and that is why the U-S government is putting such a big effort into the smallpox problem," Mr. Gottfried said. "You could certainly imagine widespread death as a consequence of the use of biological weapons and at a level that would be comparable, say, to the people who were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and larger."
But Professor Gottfried adds that thankfully, biological weaponry of this nature has not been used on a large scale, and it is by no means clear how easy it would be to do so. Weather conditions are a crucial factor.
"From a military point of view, it is not nearly comparable to a nuclear weapon," he said. "If you send a nuclear weapon over with a ballistic missile to some target, you have a pretty high assurance that target is destroyed, and there is really no defense in sight against that. With the biological weapon, the consequence does not happen immediately. It may take days or weeks. So it does not have the kind of utility, as far as I can see, for military purposes."
But biological weapons serve other purposes, says Jonathan Tucker. Their very existence inspires fear.
"We have seen that even small attacks with chemical and biological agents, as we saw with the anthrax letters in which only five people died, can have a disproportionate psychological impact," Mr. Tucker said. "So the unconventional nature of these weapons – the fact that they are invisible and insidious – is attractive to terrorists who are more interested in causing terror and intimidation and political pressure than in killing a lot of people."
Bur scaring people is not the same as killing them, says Mr. Tucker. So we should keep our eye firmly on the nuclear threat. In trying to deal simultaneously with two crises, the Bush Administration, he says, is playing down the North Korean nuclear threat.
Yet that, he believes, is the greater one. It could tear the fragile fabric of agreements that has kept nuclear weapons from spreading. North Korea has become the first nation to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and it threatens to resume testing of missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan.
"If North Korea is able to get away with its gambit to acquire nuclear weapons, it could result in a domino effect, a rapid spread of nuclear weapons to other states because nuclear weapons tend to beget other nuclear weapons," Mr. Tucker said. "When one state acquires these weapons, its neighbors become insecure and have a strong incentive to acquire the weapons as well."
North Korea, says Mr. Tucker, is capable of building a nuclear arsenal now. For Iraq, it would be some time in the future. First things first.