Sunday, April 26, 2009
The "Practical Politics" of a Presumed Plague (Second Update, April 28)
An artifact from a time when civilization itself was in peril: This tapestry captures some of the many horrors of the 14th Century Black Death, which claimed an estimated 75-200 million people, many of them perishing from secondary causes created by government policies (such as increased taxation, fees, and fines).
The prospect of nuclear annihilation is dreadful, but difficult to make vivid or tangible to the individual. Unless it's wedded to a larger narrative -- such as an irrepressible conflict between superpowers, or the prospect of nukes in the hands of nihilistic terrorists -- the specter of The Bomb has little to offer in terms of "practical politics."
Much the same can be said of the practical political value of concern over the collapse of the global biosphere through anthropogenic environmental contamination. The revenge of a poisoned planet is the stuff of engaging science fiction and -- what's much the same thing -- political careers crowned by Nobel Peace Prizes.
But relatively few people, none of whom would make a bearable dinner companion, share Comrade Gore's insistence that saving the environment should be the "central organizing principle" of human society. And, come to think of it, people of Gore's ilk don't share that perspective, as well: Despite the fact that they would force the rest of us to live like medieval serfs, they're willing to sacrifice none of the amenities that give them a Sasquatch-sized "carbon footprint."
Even though nearly eight years have passed since 9-11, we need little reminder of the shock value of mass terrorism. But even truly dramatic terrorist attacks are peripheral to the concerns of most people. While 9-11 left us shocked, horrified, and incandescent with rage, it was a survivable atrocity. It didn't threaten American society at an existential level, despite constant efforts by opportunists of the neo-Trotskyite variety to retro-fit the attack with an apocalyptic subtext.
That being said, it must be admitted that our rulers have extracted tremendous practical political value out of the 9-11 attacks. A literal revolution in political, legal, and geostrategic affairs was brought about because of that one terrible morning.
Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that, a decade hence, the media and political Establishment would treat as a given the notion that the President of the United States has the authority to lock away people at will and have them tortured at his discretion. Such is now the case, however, because of the practical politics of post-9/11 America.
Having used some variation on the expression "practical politics" several times, I really should specify what it means. That phrase comes from H.L. Mencken's familiar insightful definition: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamarous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Outbreak: Above -- American victims of the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918; below, left -- police officers and many other public officials took to wearing surgical masks during the epidemic.
I would amend that assessment only to the extent of noting that not all of the threats exploited by political rulers are imaginary. A substantial number of them are quite real, but magnified unreasonably to such an extent that they become caricatures of themselves. The current "public health emergency" over the prospect of a flu "pandemic" appears to fall into that category.
Unlike the threats discussed above, the prospect of a plague is terrifying in a deeply personal sense. Relatively few people have experienced terrorism, and only a tiny handful of people have witnessed first-hand the horrors of a nuclear attack.
None of us has lived through the a global environmental collapse. But each of us has vivid and ineradicable memories, woven into the very tissues of our bodies, of what it feels like to be sick and helpless. Although the concept of human extinction through some vast nuclear or ecological disaster is an impersonal abstraction, the prospect of individual extinction is quite understandable. So, in terms of measuring relative potency as a weapon of practical politics, microbes -- despite being all but weightless -- have far greater throw-weight than nuclear megatons.
All of this should be kept in mind as we try to assess the actual seriousness of the "public health emergency" declared on Sunday (April 26) by the UN's World Health Organization and the Obama administration over what is being described as a potential "pandemic" involving an oddly polyglot flu virus (designated H1N1) said to contain human, avian, and two varieties of swine flu DNA.
Practically everybody is familiar with the seasonal affliction commonly called "the Flu." Relatively few are aware the Flu, now regarded as a common and conquerable illness, was once a terrifying plague, or that it continues to kill thousands of people every year.
The "Spanish Flu" epidemic of 1918 claimed the lives of 583,000 Americans (many of them interred in mass graves), a figure that, in proportionate terms, would translate into more than 1.5 million today.
Overseas the death toll was even more terrifying: An estimated 20-50 million people succumbed to the sickness, a figure that rivaled the global body count compiled by the Black Death of the 14th Century.
As is so often the case when Pestilence is digging its spurs into its white steed, its saddle partner, War, is sitting astride its own red mount and running rampant. The global paroxysm of lethal stupidity called World War I -- more accurately called the murder-suicide of the Christian West -- produced a splendid breeding environment for disease. Millions of people were mired down in static trenches in conditions perfectly calibrated to compromise their immune systems.
The war itself was the epidemic's most significant transmission vector, with some infected soldiers returning with the disease, and other doughboys, infected on the homefront, taking it back across the Atlantic to transmit to another hapless population. This is why roughly half of the American victims of the 1918 flu epidemic were young and previously very healthy people.
The microbe behind the hideous 1918 outbreak was quite similar to the notorious H5N1 virus, better known as the Avian Influenza or "Bird Flu." Already designated the Next Big Plague by the medical branch of the Homeland Security Apparatus, the Bird Flu has been the focus of a multi-billion-dollar international system of monitoring and vaccine storage.
In a speech delivered on October 27, 2005, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt conveyed the cheerful news that "during at least ten periods in the past 300 years, viruses have mounted massive pandemic assaults that made masses ill and caused millions to die.... If the past is prologue, we are overdue for the next pandemic."
Given that most "public servants" are in occupations that thrive on alarmism, we really shouldn't expect sober risk assessments from them, and Leavitt's treatment of the possible "pandemic" was no exception to that rule.
Tom Bethell of the American Spectator, author of a layman's guide to de-politicized science, put recent pandemics into a more rational perspective. At the beginning of this decade, SARS -- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- was expected to mow down millions; to date, fewer than a thousand unfortunate people have been killed by that affliction.
"To put that in perspective," observes Bethell, "about 55 million people die around the world every year, 2.4 million of them in the United States. It is said 1968 was another `pandemic' year; 34,000 Americans died of flu. But about that many die of flu each year -- most [from] pneumonia."
Echoes of a previous plague: A soldier distributes surgical masks to civilians in Mexico.
Health and nutrition expert Bill Sardi points out that "Fear of a [flu] pandemic is traveling faster than the disease and health officials may have overreacted.
The declaration of a health emergency was based upon an estimated 20 cases of human swine flu in the United States and no deaths, and about 1300 cases and 80 deaths in Mexico...." Sardi takes note of the fact that the current medical emergency "appears to be a fully orchestrated flu pandemic."
For instance: A local newspaper in Seguin, Texas reported that health officials in Guadalupe, Texas were preparing for a May 2 exercise in which "1000 volunteers would attempt to vaccinate the entire population of the county, 115,000 people, in 36 hours."
According to this account, "Guadalupe County emergency management and their counterparts around the country" were training to deal with a scenario involving a mass plague because "in the history of humankind it happens once every 100 years or so -- and the time is coming for the next one."
Or, as Mike Leavitt put it four years ago, "We are overdue for the next pandemic."
What if certain people became impatient and decided to speed things up just a touch?
Sardi points to the interesting fact that a Boston vaccine manufacturer called Replikins, Ltd. claims to have been given advance warning of the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak a year ago. That prior warning supposedly resulted from a "partnership" arrangement with the federal government that yielded a technology that supposedly can anticipate viral mutations 1 to 3 years in advance.
There are many people who cling to the comforting illusion that people employed by the government ruling us are capable of such detailed foresight. I'm confident that none of them regularly reads this blog. I know for certain that none of them writes for it.
This leaves us with the possibility that the virus behind the current scare -- which, according to several well-credentialed medical experts, appears to have been synthesized in a laboratory -- was deliberately unleashed on the public.
Is that planning to deal with a pandemic, or planning to precipitate one, Mike?
This would not necessarily have been the work of the US government; it could have been carried out by other parties, whose actions were known, in detail, to the government some time ago, as it made plans to deal with the outbreak in the most politically profitable fashion.
Although one understandably recoils at such a suggestion, it's worth recalling that the pathogens used in the post-9/11 anthrax attacks were cultured at Ft. Detrick. Nor should it escape our attention that there is an investigation presently underway to determine what happened to a number of viral samples missing from Ft. Detrick's biological select agents and toxins (BSAT) stock.
Frederic Bastiat famously said that government expands its power by creating the poison and the antidote in the same laboratory. This could be an instance in which the Bastiat formula was followed in something other than a metaphorical sense.
Even if we're merely dealing with a natural mutation of a particularly nasty kind, we can expect government policy to exacerbate the situation in perfectly avoidable ways.
During the Black Death, ruling elites with the means to minimize their exposure to disease raised taxes, fees, and fines on peasants, leaving them more destitute and thus in even greater danger. We've noted that war is an excellent breeder of lethal diseases, and perhaps the most efficient means of transmitting them world-wide. Increasing political control over medical assets is likewise a good prescription for prolonging a medical crisis and enhancing its lethality.
Whatever else may occur in the present emergency, we can expect the Obama administration to seek greater centralized control over the emergency response system. In the unlikely event that this emergency does metastasize into a legitimate pandemic, the Obamatrons will have a ready-made rationale to mobilize the entire machinery of the Homeland Security State.
Despite the dangers that emerge from the microbial world, of this we can be sure: There is no deadlier affliction than the disease referred to by R.J. Rummel as the "plague of power." This is why wisdom dictates that we examine the current "public health emergency" with a properly cynical view of the members of the political class, who stand to profit from it.
Rep. Ron Paul, M.D., offers his views of the influenza scares of '76 and '09.
Second Update: Quarantine Plans from the Pentagon and Federal Alphabet Gang
A memo issued by Bridger McGaw, the DHS assistant commissar for the "private sector," notes that "The Department of Justice has established legal federal authorities pertaining to the implementation of a quarantine and enforcement. Under approval from HHS, the Surgeon General has the authority to issue quarantines."
In addition to the Coast Guard and Customs, federal agencies authorized to enforce quarantines include the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI, and the wise and thoughtful people in command of the criminal syndicate called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives [and Quarantined Citizens].
Declan McCullagh of CBS News, who first reported about the memo, observes that a Pentagon planning document states that the military "is prepared to assist in `quarantining groups of people in order to minimize the spread of disease during an influenza pandemic' and aiding in `efforts to restore and maintain order.'" This offers yet another convenient detour around the much-ignored Posse Comitatus Act, and another promising avenue for those seeking the imposition of undisguised military rule.
(My thanks to Lew Rockwell.)
My thanks to Bill Sardi for sharing his views with me, and to reader R.W. for providing information on the missing pathogens at Ft. Detrick.
On sale now.
Dum spiro, pungno!