Sound or Silly?

While surfing the Internet yesterday, I came across this tidbit: The University of Nebraska Medical Center has built "the largest biocontainment center in the world." I had to ask myself, what are they talking about? A hundred beds, a thousand beds? No, they built a ten-bed unit to deal with a bioterrorist attack.

Okay, I realize that institutions like that employ people to sift through federal legislation for further sources of tax revenue, and here they scored a million bucks, peanuts really, but I wonder how they justified it? And why?

I can’t answer those questions, but I’m strongly reminded of the 1995 movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, as the model for this fraud. A portable ten bed unit in a rural town of thirty-thousand people might make some kind of sense in a movie, but in the real world a ten bed unit in a city of over four-hundred thousand people would accomplish exactly nothing in the event of an attack. The still unexplained assault with military grade anthrax in 2001 might have been handled in a ten bed unit if it had been localized, which it wasn’t, but a widespread assault with some kind of military grade biochemical agent in an urban area would overwhelm every medical facility in the region.

I am also reminded of the propaganda-induced anxiety during the Cold War, and how easy it was to provoke people into doing silly things. Personal bomb shelters were a big item in the suburbs in those days, if you could afford one. What good would they do? Nobody was sure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Meanwhile the Defense Department was busy building NORAD inside a granite mountain that could withstand a direct hit; that is, a real bomb shelter.

In my home town in northern Indiana during the Cold War, we had the Civil Air Patrol Auxiliary, an association of women who did not have to work — yes, during the ’50s wives usually didn’t have to work — who got together to scan the skies for Russian bombers during daylight hours. The probability of spotting Russian bombers anywhere near Indiana was zero, but that didn’t matter. They were doing their patriotic duty, and having nice day outings with friends.

Meanwhile the Defense Department was busy building the early warning radar installations in the Arctic; that is, a real detection system.

As far as I know, the Ladies Auxiliary didn’t cost the taxpayer a cent, and I don’t believe the private bomb shelter was tax-supported either, so this foolishness was a matter of personal choice. And while they were entertaining themselves, feeling virtuous, and getting photographed by the local newspaper, their taxes were paying for the real thing.

Somehow I don’t think the Omaha containment unit represents the same illusion, although it may represent a much more serious delusion, namely that the government will protect us in the event of a real bioterrorist attack.

I see this as a more sophisticated version of the plastic sheet and duct tape nonsense dished out in 2001 — your own personal biological bomb shelter — only more dangerous, if people believe it. The intentional release of really bad bugs in an urban area wouldn’t infect only ten people, it could infect thousands. Then what?

Too bad the feds didn’t put that million bucks into the New Orleans levees instead.