The Germy Paradox – Filters: A taboo

Link post

In 3.1: Hard and Soft Skills, we dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity that the Germy Para­dox ex­ists be­cause bioweapons aren’t ac­tu­ally easy to make. To­day, we go into the past and dis­cuss an­other pos­si­bil­ity – that whether or not they’re effec­tive, there’s some kind of taboo or cul­tural rea­son they aren’t used.

This is not a new idea, al­though there’s no real con­sen­sus. I sep­a­rate schol­arly ex­pla­na­tions for the Ta­boo Filter into two schools: the hu­mane­ness hy­poth­e­sis and the treach­ery hy­poth­e­sis. In the hu­mane­ness hy­poth­e­sis, peo­ple re­ject BW be­cause they are un­nec­es­sar­ily cruel. The treach­ery hy­poth­e­sis as­serts that the taboo is an out­growth of the an­cient be­liefs about poi­son and dis­ease in war­fare – that they are se­cre­tive, un­fair, in­ex­pli­ca­ble, and fun­da­men­tally evil. This hy­poth­e­sis has many facets and in­ter­min­gles with evolu­tion­ary re­vul­sion to poi­son and con­tam­i­na­tion.

But first, how do weapons taboos break?

The rea­son this filter ex­pla­na­tion is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing is that taboos ex­ist at the whim of the cul­ture, and don’t have par­tic­u­lar con­crete rea­sons for ex­is­tence. If we are pro­tected by a taboo against BW us­age, how re­silient is that pro­tec­tion?

Try­ing to as­sess the strength of a taboo is difficult. We can­not re­li­ably pre­dict the fu­ture or the vi­cis­si­tudes of fu­ture policy de­ci­sions, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to rare events like BW de­vel­op­ment or us­age.

This is es­pe­cially true when we are not even cer­tain of the ori­gin of the taboo. But we can per­haps com­pare it to an­other event: the chem­i­cal weapons taboo. Chem­i­cal and biolog­i­cal weapons are, while not ter­ribly similar, of­ten treated similarly in policy (Smith 2014), and are of­ten seen lumped un­der the cat­e­gories of “bio­chem­i­cal weapons”, “CBW” (Chem­i­cal and Biolog­i­cal Weapons), “CBRN” (chem­i­cal, biolog­i­cal, ra­diolog­i­cal and nu­clear weapons), or “WMD” (weapons of mass de­struc­tion), so it is ap­pro­pri­ate to com­pare policy de­ci­sions.

Chem­i­cal weapons have been used much more fre­quently than BW, and hence, the taboo has been bro­ken on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions. The Hague Con­ven­tion was bro­ken by the use of poi­son gas in WW1; and the Geneva Pro­to­col was bro­ken by chem­i­cal and biolog­i­cal weapons use by, among oth­ers, Ja­pan, Iraq, and Syria. (Jeffer­son 2014) Weapon us­age is sub­ject to “pop­u­lar­ity”, and the up to 161 us­ages of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria have prob­a­bly built upon each other and re­duced psy­cholog­i­cal and poli­ti­cal bar­ri­ers to fu­ture at­tacks.(Revill 2017) This taboo may already be on un­steady ground.

More di­rectly, the USSR cre­ated the largest biolog­i­cal weapons pro­gram of all time af­ter sign­ing the Biolog­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion treaty, and Iraq op­er­ated an enor­mous pro­gram se­cretly un­til 1991. (Wheelis and Rózsa, 2009) In ad­di­tion to a hand­ful of bioter­ror efforts in mod­ern times, sev­eral states are cur­rently sus­pected of hav­ing biolog­i­cal weapons pro­grams. (A list and sources can be found in After­good, 2000.) The BW taboo, as well, may not be as re­silient as it ap­pears. That said, it seems likely that an out­right dec­la­ra­tion or us­age of biolog­i­cal weapons by a state would both pro­voke a stronger re­sponse, and erode the taboo severely. The like­li­hood of this last pos­si­bil­ity is what seems most con­cern­ing. How­ever, to un­der­stand it, we must un­der­stand what fac­tors are be­hind the ap­par­ent taboo to­day.


The first school of thought I con­sider holds that a taboo ex­ists be­cause biolog­i­cal and chem­i­cal weapons are seen as un­ac­cept­ably in­hu­mane com­pared to con­ven­tional weapons. This seems to have been the mo­ti­va­tion of one of the ear­liest mod­ern ex­plicit taboos against chem­i­cal and biolog­i­cal weapons us­age, the 1863 Lie­ber Code (Jeffer­son 2014). This set of guidelines for hu­mane war­fare in the US Army in­cluded the fol­low­ing:

Ar­ti­cle 16: “Mili­tary ne­ces­sity does not ad­mit of cru­elty – that is, the in­flic­tion of suffer­ing for the sake of suffer­ing or for re­venge, nor of maiming or wound­ing ex­cept in fight, nor of tor­ture to ex­tort con­fes­sions. It does not ad­mit of the use of poi­son in any way, nor of the wan­ton dev­as­ta­tion of a dis­trict. It ad­mits of de­cep­tion, but dis­claims acts of perfidy; and, in gen­eral, mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity does not in­clude any act of hos­tility which makes the re­turn to peace un­nec­es­sar­ily difficult.”

Ar­ti­cle 70: “The use of poi­son in any man­ner, be it to poi­son wells, or food, or arms, is wholly ex­cluded from mod­ern war­fare. He that uses it puts him­self out of the pale of the law and us­ages of war.”
Leiber, 1863

This code in­fluenced other guidelines for war­fare, lead­ing to the for­bid­ding of use of chem­i­cal and bac­te­ri­olog­i­cal weapons in the Hague Con­ven­tions and later the Geneva Pro­to­col.

As a prin­ci­ple, the hu­mane­ness taboo re­lies im­plic­itly on at least one of two as­sump­tions – first, that death or in­jury from BW is worse than the same from con­ven­tional weapons. Se­cond, that BW are more likely to be used against civilian pop­u­la­tions, or oth­er­wise in­flict­ing harm on peo­ple who would not be af­fected by con­ven­tional weapons. It is easy to imag­ine that the days-long strug­gle of a lethal case of smal­l­pox is less hu­mane than an in­stan­ta­neous death from a bomb, or that biolog­i­cal weapons are fre­quently tar­geted at civili­ans. But these as­sump­tions should be as­sessed.

There is some ev­i­dence that sol­diers af­fected by chem­i­cal weapons dur­ing World War 1 had higher rates of post-trau­matic stress di­s­or­der (Jeffer­son 2014), and dis­eases are ob­vi­ously ca­pa­ble of caus­ing pro­tracted suffer­ing. Still, ob­jec­tions have been raised to the no­tion that biolog­i­cal weapons harm tar­gets more than con­ven­tional weapons. Early US re­sponses to the Lie­ber Code, quoted above, point out that effects from “poi­son” weapons are not nec­es­sar­ily worse than sink­ing ships and caus­ing en­emy sol­diers to drown. (Zan­der 2003) BW may even be bet­ter – many pathogens give in­fected en­e­mies “a fight­ing chance” to re­cover com­pletely, rather than a ki­netic at­tack that maims or kills out­right. (Rap­pert 2003) A minor­ity ob­jec­tion is that since war-mak­ers are mo­ti­vated to end wars quickly, it may be in­hu­mane to ban any kind of bat­tlefield weapon, on the grounds that re­mov­ing a coun­try’s best strat­egy will cause the war to go on longer, and thus ex­tend the suffer­ing that goes along with it. (Rap­pert 2003) Th­ese util­i­tar­ian frame­works are im­por­tant to con­sider, al­though when un­der­stand­ing the route of norms, it is im­por­tant to note that the ac­tual trade­offs in­volved are less im­por­tant than the per­cep­tion of what the trade­offs are. Either way, it seems as though nei­ther academia nor mil­i­tary de­ci­sion-mak­ers have con­sid­ered these points in de­tail when mak­ing choices about BW, sug­gest­ing that this kind of rea­soned anal­y­sis is not be­ing done any­where.

The sec­ond as­sump­tion that the hu­mane­ness hy­poth­e­sis may rely upon is that biolog­i­cal weapons are more likely than con­ven­tional to be used on civili­ans. There is some ev­i­dence for this, in that Ja­panese BW were ex­ten­sively used against civili­ans (Baren­blatt 2004) and tar­gets of later BW pro­grams dur­ing the Cold War in­cluded cities and agri­cul­ture. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) But the far larger and more in­fluen­tial nu­clear war plans dur­ing the Cold War in­cluded the de­struc­tion of cities and billions of civilian lives (Ells­berg 2017), even af­ter both Soviet and Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments agreed to give up their BW pro­grams. Spar­ing civilian lives in worst-case sce­nar­ios can­not have been a mil­i­tary pri­or­ity.

If the hu­mane­ness hy­poth­e­sis is true, we should ex­pect states to be more com­fortable with fac­ing and wield­ing non­lethal BW. For chem­i­cal weapons and per­haps biolog­i­cal weapons as well, this seems to be true. (Pear­son 2006, Martin 2016) The Amer­i­can, Soviet, and Ja­panese BW pro­grams had vast pro­grams to de­velop agri­cul­tural weapons, dam­ag­ing crops or live­stock with­out af­fect­ing hu­mans. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) Non­lethal anti-per­son­nel weapons were ma­jor com­po­nent of the Amer­i­can BW pro­gram (Alas­tair 1999) as well as an end goal of the South Afri­can BW pro­gram. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) As far as chem­i­cal weapons go, the non­lethal­ity of de­fo­li­ants is con­sid­ered to have been a ma­jor rea­son those weapons in par­tic­u­lar were used by Kennedy dur­ing the Viet­nam War (Martin 2016) (al­though other ex­pla­na­tions have been pro­posed as well, as de­scribed later in this piece). It is less clear that rev­e­la­tions of a non­lethal BW pro­gram to­day would pro­voke less fear than rev­e­la­tions of a lethal pro­gram – re­cent liter­a­ture has not dis­cussed this ques­tion.

Dis­con­cert­ingly, Su­san Pear­son sug­gests that the promise of in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing non­lethal BW may in­spire de­vel­op­ment of other BW tac­tics. (Pear­son 2006) While non­lethal weapons were an even­tual goal of the South Afri­can weapons pro­gram (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009), they planned on de­vel­op­ing an­thrax weapons first, so there is prece­dent for this claim. Any ero­sion of this norm may open the door for more over­all use of BW, hu­mane or not. (Ilch­mann and Revill 2014)

Pow­er­ful and in­visi­ble: The treach­ery hypothesis

A sep­a­rate body of thought holds that biolog­i­cal war­fare ex­ists in the pub­lic mind in a cat­e­gory that can be de­scribed as “treach­er­ous”. This is re­lated to what Jes­sica Stern calls the “dreaded” na­ture of BW: it is in­visi­ble, un­fa­mil­iar, and trig­gers a dis­pro­por­tionately de­gree of dis­gust and fear. (Stern 2003) In ex­plain­ing this na­ture, pro­po­nents gen­er­ally re­fer to the his­tory of re­vul­sion to poi­son and dis­ease. This would have be­gun in the evolu­tion of the species, cre­at­ing an in­tu­itive re­vul­sion of sick­ness and con­tam­i­na­tion that kept our an­ces­tors al­ive. (Cole, 1998)

This trend can be ob­served in a huge va­ri­ety of cul­tures: in Hindu laws of war from 600 AD (Cole 1998), to poi­son’s as­so­ci­a­tion in Chris­ti­an­ity with the devil and witchcraft (van Court­land Moon 2008), to South Amer­i­can tribes that al­lowed war­riors to poi­son their ar­rows when hunt­ing but not for war. (Cole 1998) Poi­son and dis­ease are of­ten seen as ac­cept­able tools against sub­hu­mans, but not against equals. (Zan­ders 2003)

It’s im­por­tant not to over­state it – the taboo is not a hu­man uni­ver­sal. Both the Bible and the Qu­ran con­tain pro­vi­sions on how to wage war, but do not for­bid poi­son, dis­ease, or the like as weapons. (Zan­ders 2003) In Europe, de­spite offi­cial pro­hi­bi­tions be­gin­ning in the Re­nais­sance era, their use was defended un­til 1737. (Price 1995) Nonethe­less, the taboo is still no­tably com­mon in hu­man cul­ture. It is hard to imag­ine early taboos ex­ist­ing for hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons, when con­ven­tional war­fare be­fore guns and mod­ern med­i­cal treat­ment was so dis­abling. In­stead, it may be be­cause toxic weapons were seen as un­bal­anced – hard to de­tect, difficult to ex­plain, and near-im­pos­si­ble to treat.

Pro­po­nents of this view rarely ad­dress an ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion this pre­sents – that poi­son weapons are taboo be­cause they are too pow­er­ful. This seems, on its face, ab­surd. Richard Price ad­dresses this and sug­gests that de­spite the con­cep­tion of poi­son as a “woman’s weapon” and a treach­er­ous “equal­izer” be­tween forces, it is not ac­tu­ally very effec­tive as a weapon. (Price 1995) Similarly, in mod­ern set­tings, So­nia Ben Oua­grham-Gorm­ley makes a com­pel­ling case that the threat of biolog­i­cal weapons pro­grams has been over­stated and un­der­whelming com­pared to their ac­tual ac­com­plish­ments. (Ben Oua­grham-Gorm­ley 2014)

Ad­di­tion­ally, the per­sis­tence of these taboos through­out the mod­ern age has not been fully ex­plained. In the treach­ery lens, poi­son and dis­ease are thought of as “the un­known” and of­ten as­so­ci­ated with magic. (Price 1995) To­day, we un­der­stand much more about biol­ogy. Does this im­ply that the taboo is weaker now than it has been? If not, why has the taboo on biolog­i­cal weapons re­mained con­stant through­out re­cent his­tory, but not, for in­stance, one against bul­lets, fire, and ex­plo­sions? This the­ory does seem gen­er­ally ro­bust, and the com­par­i­sons to his­tor­i­cal taboos are com­pel­ling in­deed, but ex­ist­ing re­search does not ex­plain why the taboo per­sists and is so spe­cific to biol­ogy.

Ta­boos into the future

What kills a taboo? Su­san Martin dis­cusses the idea in the con­text of US chem­i­cal weapons us­age in Viet­nam. In this case, Martin ar­gues, poli­ti­ci­ans were able to over­ride one norm by as­sert­ing an­other – that us­age of de­fo­li­ant chem­i­cal weapons was ac­cept­able be­cause the vi­able al­ter­na­tive was use of nu­clear weapons, also taboo. (Martin 2016) Kai Ilch­man and James Revill as­sert that this is part of a string of in­ci­dents that have been erod­ing the biolog­i­cal and chem­i­cal weapons taboos over time. (Ilch­man and Revill 2014) In ad­di­tion, many be­lieve that the Biolog­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion is nearly or en­tirely use­less, since it con­tains no pro­vi­sions for ver­ifi­ca­tion and since it al­lows for “defen­sive re­search” that is prac­ti­cally in­dis­t­in­guish­able from offen­sive re­search. (Zan­ders 2003, McCauley and Payne 2010, Koblentz 2016)

The two hy­pothe­ses pre­sented here are not the only ones. Fur­ther re­search or think­ing in this area might iden­tify more solidly the source of the taboo, and oth­er­wise help de­ter­mine how it can be strength­ened.

The up­com­ing sec­tion will dis­cuss the idea that there is no taboo, or at least no func­tional taboo any more. If this is the case, then the lack of ob­served weapons pro­grams or us­age is a purely strate­gic de­ci­sion.


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