summary: and you thought you saw journalists, scientists, and the government as dissemblers and obfuscators before….
At any given point in my life, I have a small handful of friends and acquaintances who view me as an angry, bitter human being who holds her rage inside like it’s a cold and heavy stone. My pal Rafi tells me I should let go of my anger because it’s weighing me down and wearing me out.
But although I’m angry at an awful lot of goddam bullshit going on in the world, I’m not an angry person. Even though I spend lots of my time railing against injustice, I’m actually fairly joyful most of the time–even, sometimes, while I’m really effing mad. I take enormous joy in truth, in all its versions, and I get mad when someone or something stands as a barrier to the truth being told. I get mad when people tell lies, and I get mad when people believe lies. It’s sort of why I got into all this social justice stuff in the first place.
That’s why I’m really enjoying Kenneth King’s book Germs Gone Wild: How the Unchecked Development of Domestic Biodefense Threatens America. I’m not an expert on bioterrorism or advances in biodefense research, so if you want to know if this text is an Important Addition to the Growing Evidence that Biodefense Research is Bad, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I am sort of an expert in crusading against lying liars and the lies they tell, though, and from that perspective I can tell you that this text is an important addition to that growing canon.
Much of this text is focused on the efforts of a small group of citizens to fight the establishment of the nation’s second-largest biodefense lab in rural Pulaski County, Kentucky. According to King, the lion’s share of the fight was against an onslaught of pro-biolab propaganda that declared the planned lab to be, according to U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, “as safe as going to Wal-Mart.” King shares statistic after statistic designed to dismantle this propaganda, and in the process he paints a picture of politicians, scientists, and journalists as misguided or misinformed at best; at worst, they are shown to be master dissemblers, motivated by greed and fear.
King–a longtime Kentucky resident–makes no bones about how angry he is. If the title doesn’t clue you in to the general attitude of this book with respect to America’s biodefense industry, then you’ll have it figured out by the third paragraph of Chapter One, in which King refers to regional proponents of expanding biodefense research as “the local ‘influentsia’.” On page 2, you’ll see King point to “biodefense shucking and jiving” as he describes his decision to join in on efforts to block the expansion of biodefense within America’s borders. This is a man who is clearly deeply committed to truth-telling and equally deeply committed to pulling back the curtain on what he perceives as anyone’s efforts to obscure the truth.
For example: King describes the objection of U.S. Representative Gene Green (D-TX) to the use of the term “bio-weapons agents” to describe what he says are actually “infectious agents occurring naturally in nature”; Green wonders if there might be a more accurate and less emotionally charged term to describe the chemical compounds mixed in biolabs around the country. The research scientist being questioned by Green agrees with him. “Ah yes,” King writes,
poor misunderstood bioweapons angents. All those decades of being abused by mad scientists in the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia, brutalized and trained to be CIA and KGB killers–anthrax, brucella, tularemia, smallpox, Ebola. Forcefully tattooed with swastikas; implanted with Bjorg control modules; forced to assassinate generations of monkeys and guinea pigs and pretend they enjoyed it. When all they really wanted to do was snuggle up in a dead cow leg somewhere in a Texas ditch and get back in touch with their inner cowboy.
And poor misunderstood biodefense complex, which is not in the scary old bioweapons agent business at all, but is just trying to do the humane thing and give these poor abandoned germ orphans some rehabilitation and stability in their lives…. And isn’t it wonderful how we were able to spend $60 billion plus to save the millions of Americans the Graham-Talent WMD Commission predicts will die sometime in the next decade from excessive consumption of sick rabbits and the careless handling of cow carrion? Please, whatever you do, don’t call the germs in biodefense laboratories bioweapons agents. Call them emerging pathogens, or Little Orphan Annies, or little boll weevils, jes-a-looking-for-a-home.
King’s furious that anyone would dare to lie so baldfacedly, to obfuscate and rename and dance around the truth so persistently. That’s an anger I understand.
Whether King makes a convincing case is probably better left to someone who wasn’t already pretty much in his camp in the first place. And by the way, if you are on the fence about whether the federal government really does work against the best interests of its own citizens, if you aren’t convinced that the majority of the “credible terrorist threat” rhetoric is intended to keep us afraid and willing to give up our own and others’ freedoms and safety, then this probably isn’t the book for you.
If you are already convinced, even partially, of any of the above, then this book offers a heartfelt, genuine David-and-Goliath story, except that in this case Goliath basically wins. But the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about why David would try to fight Goliath in the first place, while Germs Gone Wild gives us a glimpse into why King has taken up this particular crusade. As King explains, the 2007 campaign against the Pulaski biolab came at a time of great personal loss for him: His wife had recently died suddenly; his parents were suffering from ill health; and–though he never comes out and says this–it becomes clear that King is looking for somewhere to channel his pain and his energies.
The only significant stumbling block of this book is its density–it weighs in at just under 500 pages and contains so many acronyms that I kept wishing for a glossary to help me keep them straight. Then again, the history of contemporary bio-warfare is a complicated one, and by the end I ended up wondering if the acronyms weren’t just another tactic for keeping the public passive and confused. That’s what this book does so well: Leaves you wondering whether you really were skeptical enough about the government before you started reading it.