Palm-to-Face Story of the Week

First things first, big congratulations to President Obama! Irrespective of where you stand politically, I think no political ads for another two years is a blessing for which we can all be grateful.

Now, to the face-palming. In the wake of Sandy, this FAQ on NOAA’s website has been receiving some attention:

Subject: C5c) Why don’t we try to destroy tropical cyclones by nuking them?

Now, I am a firm believer that there are no stupid questions. What’s depressing about this question is therefore the general, persistent lack of education on WMD  behind it. This unfortunately holds true not only for nuclear, but for chemical, radiological, and biological weapons as well. Ask the average person how many people a standard “dirty bomb” would kill, and I’ll wager their answer would be too high by an order of magnitude –  (don’t believe me? good for you, always check sources).

“Who cares?” you may ask.  As long as security sector professionals and academics understand the threat, what does it matter if the average American, who undoubtedly has much more pressing things to worry about, doesn’t?

It matters tremendously. We all fear what we don’t understand, and in some cases that fear can be as debilitating as the threat itself. For instance, in 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the chemical agent sarin on the Tokyo subway. Of the 5,510 people attended to at local hospitals, nearly 85 percent were “worried well” – those patients who were completely healthy, with  no symptoms and no exposure, but self-reported anyway. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2001 Anthrax Letters attack. Demand for the drug Cipro (the antimicrobial used to treat anthrax) soared, even in places completely removed from the attacks (nearly a third of clinicians in Wisconsin and Minnesota were asked by patients for Cipro). According to some estimates, the number of these “worried well” patients in a given disaster can outnumber legitimate patients by 20:1. Now clearly, even experts on WMD can succumb to fear, but a better informed populace – one which knows sarin has a clear checklist of symptoms, or  that anthrax isn’t contagious – is less likely to panic.

Education on WMD is critical for preventive reasons too.  Understanding the absolute basics of how nuclear weapons are made is critical to really understanding the Iranian threat. Understanding the potential impact of chemical weapons is critical to understanding our concerns over the Syrian stockpile. Understanding the threat of biological weapons is critical to recognizing the importance of  strengthening international norms against their use.

Moral of the story? Education is important. Maybe we should designate a “National Educate-a-Friend on CBRN” day. It should be sooner rather than later though – the East Coast has another Nor’easter coming in, and there are already murmurs we should heat it out of existence with mists of plutonium-239.

For those of you curious about NOAA’s response to the hurricane-nuke scenario, see here.

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