BOSTON HAS LONG been a world leader in medical research -- home to
seminal discoveries that have cured lethal diseases, prolonged
life, and revolutionized the very practice of medicine. But Boston
University's plan to construct a high security laboratory known as
BioSafety Level Four will diverge from that tradition. By
undertaking research on biological weapons, the lab will be a
source of new and highly dangerous pathogens.
Supporters of the
laboratory argue that its activities will be devoted exclusively
to defensive research on biological weapons. The Pentagon has
stated that its goal is to develop genetically engineered
biological weapons in order to discover defenses against them.
These inevitably will have offensive capabilities.
Testimony before the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission exposed the porous boundary between offensive and
defensive biological weapons research. During the apartheid era,
leading physicians and scientists were persuaded to join a
burgeoning biological weapons program on the grounds that they
were undertaking only defensive research. In top-secret
laboratories, the government also funded research on biological
weapons for offensive purposes. The findings of the so-called
defensive laboratories were channeled to the scientists doing the
Security from the threat of biological weapons depends on sound
international agreements to ban such weapons along with
enforceable mechanisms for monitoring and compliance. Indeed
President Nixon in 1969 unilaterally and unconditionally renounced
biological weapons and scrapped the US research program on the
grounds that "mankind already carries in its hands too many of the
seeds of its own destruction."
Six years later under US leadership, the Biological Weapons
Convention, a landmark among weapons control treaties, was
ratified by more than 145 countries. Such wisdom is no longer in
The irony is that the US government is now heading in the
The widely recognized weakness of the Biological Weapons
Convention in preventing proliferation led in 1995 to negotiations
for a new protocol.
After several years of intense international talks, a new
strengthened protocol was agreed upon, but the Bush administration
rejected a binding treaty approach and ended the negotiations.
This unilateral action has been interpreted as an abrogation of
the treaty and as a prelude to a US secret research program on
offensive bio-weapons. National security is to be achieved through
military superiority and technological dominance.
A key lesson of the tragic 9/11 experience is thereby
forgotten. All the advanced offensive weapons the Pentagon had
amassed, at a cost of many trillions of dollars, were overcome by
terrorists armed with simple box cutters. Also forgotten is that
the first significant bio-terror attack in the United States
likely emerged from a weapons facility such as the one now being
planned in Boston. There is ample evidence that the anthrax in the
letters mailed to Congress and elsewhere came from the Army
biological weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
The unilateralist policies being now pursued by our government
will surely unleash global proliferation. Are we ready to become
accomplices in a sordid biological weapons race? Are we willing
thereby to tarnish the good name of our city?
Bernard Lown, who received the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1985, is professor emeritus at the Harvard School
of Public Health. Prasannan Parthasarathi is associate professor
of history at Boston College.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.