September 13, 2003
When A Single Terrorist Will Be Able To Kill Enormous Numbers

Arnold Kling is looking toward that future day when a single person will be able to cause massive numbers of deaths.

But to me, the interesting question is this: assume you can make state-sponsored terrorism extinct. Then what kind of terrorism will survive?

I think that survivors will be splinter groups, rogue operations, and individuals. As of now, that is less of a threat than a large network. But the power of the individual keeps increasing as technology increases. Eventually, we are going to have to develop the capability to identify and thwart a lone terrorist with no connections to anyone.

A lot of civil libertarians see an increasing danger from technological advances that enable greater surveillance of people by their governments. What they fail to address is the problem that Arnold Kling alludes to: the danger from the lone individual who will be able to use advances in technology to kill increasingly larger numbers of people in a single act.

As I've argued in the past, a basic question about technological advances in the future is whether technological advances will favor the defensive or the offensive under scenarios where the attackers are small groups of people or individuals.

The basic question that any debate about the future dangers of technology has to answer is whether the net effect of likely technological advances in the 21st century will favor the offensive or the defensive. Optimists assume that the kinds of dangers generated by technological advances be offset by even greater abilities to create systems to protect us from these dangers. But that assumption can not be proven and there are very plausible arguments against it.

In his excellent 1984 book The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A.D. 1000 historian William H. McNeill explored the history of technological changes as they affected the ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations. At different periods of history a succession of technological advances shifted the balance between offensive and defensive and in the process changed the nature of warfare and the structure of societies. In the 21st century we are facing technological changes that will dwarf in their effects all previous technological changes put together. It is worth asking whether the coming technological advances will have a net effect of making civilization easier or harder to defend. My own view is that these advances will make civilization harder to defend.

If we are going to be faced with growing threats from terrorism due to technological advances that make it easier to launch terrorist attacks of enormous lethality is there anything we can do about it? As I see it there are only about two major counters that can be used to sustain a defense in the long run:

  • A massive worldwide surveillance society. Sensors would be deployed throughout the world to watch for dangerous actions by individuals.
  • Reengineer human minds to make humans less dangerous.

Either offensive actions have to be watched for at the individual level just as governments now watch each other or we have to change human motives using biotech so that there will be no outliers who have a desire to kill large numbers of people.

Such extreme measures are neither necessary or possible today. Rather less extreme measures (e.g. the overthrow of the North Korean regime) can buy us a couple of decades of delay before the risk becomes much greater. But eventually technological advances will make it too easy for lone individuals or small groups to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 September 13 02:04 PM  Dangers Tech Terrorism


Comments
Fly said at September 13, 2003 3:46 PM:

Another "counter" is to build a less fragile civilization. People might live and work in small communities with independent water and power utilities and robust communication systems. If terrorism becomes common more people might move to safer communities where they give up convenience and freedom and pay a premium for survivable utilities. If terrorism gets very bad, civilization might survive as a loose network of small decentralized, hardened communities.

Randall Parker said at September 13, 2003 4:00 PM:

Some of that is going to happen as a result of the 9/11 attack. More people will move away from the primary targets in part due to demographic trends already underway for other reasons. Plus, fuel cells to supply electricity to neighborhoods or even individual buildings and other technological advances will reduce the degree to which large centralized utilities are depended upon for survival. Plus, with local power supplies and bioengineered cells we will be able to grow "chicken little" and other food in small home vats.

But all that reduces casualties only from some forms of attack. Also, note you are assuming the attacks will take place. You are just arguing for a distribution of populaces and a structure of the economy that reduces the number of resulting casualties.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at September 13, 2003 10:55 PM:

Randall,
Good article. I have been pondering this for some time. Others have commented on the division in our society between those whose thinking is based on the 9/10/2001 world and those who recognize that the 9-11 world is a new world which requires radically re-examining our social premises. Your posting is in the latter category.

I wrote an article on related issues last March here.

BTW... I think at this point it is probably impossible to stop North Korea without an invasion and occupation. The same may be true of Iran, depending on their level of concealment. Given that it is always dangerous to underestimate our opponents, I fear this is true in both cases.

Paul Banks said at September 14, 2003 11:21 AM:

Really, I think that the individual today is, and always has been, the most devastating threat to stability. Besides the Unabomber, or McVeigh, there has been, alternately, the LA shooter of Jewish day care and that type of killing. While 9/11 was more spectacular, and maybe more meaningful, the total damage done by these individual actors is about the same, and likely more over a given period than terror.

Paul

Paul Banks said at September 14, 2003 11:24 AM:

In response to an above post, there is no worry about N. Korea and Iran IF we know for certain there are no underground plants, and if so, we make an Israel circa 1980 strike, as they did against Iraq, against their plants and call it good.

Paul

Randall Parker said at September 14, 2003 11:52 AM:

Paul, US intelligence does not know where the North Korean underground plants are located. US intelligence estimates are in the range of thousands of various kinds of underground facilities in North Korea for various purposes. Which are for WMD is hard to know. The locations of many are not known with any exactness.

As for a strike ala the Israelis against Osirak: Can't do it. First we don't know where to strike. Second, the facilities may be too deeply buried to hit with conventional bombs. This is why the Pentagon is pushing to resume nuclear testing btw. They want to test bunker-busting mini-nukes for taking out deeply buried facilities.

As for the threat of the individual today: you are missing the point of my argument. The power of the individual to kill people in the past is nothing compared to what the power of the individual will be to kill people in the future.

Paul Banks said at September 14, 2003 8:07 PM:

I know that was your point, however, I do not see how the individual can surpass a group, or even, perhaps, equal it. And also, I was confused as to what means an individual would become more destructive. Outside of manufacturing another "black death" in his basement, I don't see how an individual can do anything more devastating that what has already been imagined.

As far as your first point, that is why I put the IF in there. IF there are underground facilities, I admitted, the strategy is a moot point. We seem to be under the assumption that there are, and that is a reasonable assumption IMHO. However, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Could we not bomb the shit out of their uranium mines?

Paul

Paul Banks said at September 14, 2003 8:07 PM:

That last thing is in reference to Iran. N. Korea is another story....

Paul

Randall Parker said at September 14, 2003 8:56 PM:

Paul, Most (all? not sure) of Iran's facilities are accessible by air strikes. I hope Israel eventually finds a way to do something about it.

Individual surpassing the group: I guess I don't get the relevance of your statement. If groups remain more destructive than individuals but if it becomes steadily easier for both individuals and groups to make weapons of increased lethality then the threat posed by individuals will continue to grow.

As for your comment about whether individuals can become more devastating than has already been imagined: Hey, science fiction writers have been writing up the imaginative nightmare scenarios of basement lab madmen becoming mass killers for decades (eg Frank Herbert's The White Plague). But it has not been possible for individuals to build the vast bulk of what has been imagined. What is going to change is that the number of people needed and the cost involved in building various types of weapons will gradually decline. Also, while there may already be horrible weapons that could be built by single individuals the number of such individuals who know how to build them is still very small. When it becomes easier to, say, build a killer virus the amount of skill and intelligence needed will go down as automated equipment becomes available that makes it easier to manipulate cells and macromolecules.

If only 10 people in the world can build a smallpox virus from the primary DNA sequence I'm not worried. But if a billion people could do it, if it was cheap to do, and if the components needed to do it were easily available because they had many other uses then I'd suddenly become a lot more worried.

For the future of WMD development my forecast is: Costs will go down. The amount of knowledge and skilled needed will go down. The number of people needed will go down. The size of the footprint or trail of evidence left by someone who attempts to do so will go down as well.

Zack Lynch said at September 15, 2003 1:11 PM:

A very serious topic indeed. I too see the emergence of a global surveillance society. In a world of no privacy there will need to be a counter value proposition to keep civil unrest during the transition though, the right to self. That is speech, cognition, emotions, sensations. Give people the right to do what they want with their body and mind, so far as it doesn't impinge or hurt some else (this means whole lot of changes to long standing laws around drugs, prostitution, euthanasia, etc--a) and then I could imagine a relatively peaceful transition to giving up all privacy. Subversive mind engineering is another topic for another day. Keep the important conversation going.

Deoxy said at September 16, 2003 11:39 AM:

Paul,

The point is not that a lone person becomes MORE destructive than a group, it is that a lone person becomes AS destructive (or even less destructive but on the same scale) as a group.

Technologically speaking, destructive capacity is already total - we have the power to end all life on this planet, if we so desire. It hasn't happened because those who DO desire that (and there are some, no doubt) have either not had the know-how or the means, or we have stopped them.

It's the "stopping them" part that the lone person is so bad about. The more people involved, the greater the "footprint", the greater the likelyhood that at least one of them screws up, and we catch them all (or at least disrupt their plans).

But with one dedicated person (and someone really dedicated to idea of global death has nothing to lose), the odds of "screwing up", the odds of us finding them and stopping them go down.

So, it's not total destructive capacity that matters - there is an upper limit, at least as far as human life goes, since there are only so many people on the planet - it's how many people it takes to get there.

Robert Jacoby said at September 16, 2003 12:07 PM:

Wouldn't yet another counter be to have governments that do less? Most terrorists, either groups (especially) or individuals use terror to affect a change in government policy. If governments did less, then there would be fewer policies to be changed.

As for the unabomber types, a mentally ill genius with a grudge against society, I don't think anything short of an East Germany/North Korea type of state will effectively eliminate that threat.

Shannon Love said at September 16, 2003 12:16 PM:

I don't think we are looking at a doomsday scenario here.

While advancing technology does allow the theoretical ability for smaller and smaller groups to do more and more damage, it also creates the technology necessary to defend against such attacks. The same advances that might allow for the development of genetically engineers plagues, for example, also gives us the tools to detect, analyze and rapidly cure the plague. The ability to weapons micro-organism has existed since the early 20th century yet such weapons have seldom been used in large part because they are ineffective when deployed against a population with the same medically technology used to create the germs in the first place.

The ultimate protections against the misuse of technology in this way is social and political. We must de-legitimize terrorism world wide and make it clear that anybody, regardless of the motivation, who indiscriminately attacks random civilians will be reviled by the entire human race, ejected from all political discourse and hunted down to the ends of the earth.

Dan said at September 16, 2003 12:26 PM:

Ben Bova had this in Voyagers III. A bioengineer made a plague that only killed people low in testosterone, by eating the ovaries and uterus. He was, needless to say, insane, but nearly 100 million died and many times that were rendered sterile before the plague was ended.

It was the first plague in that world.

Or consider comic books. In some ways, that may be the world we are heading for. One in which individuals with "super" powers or abilities can wreak havoc, and can only be stopped by similarly capable individuals. It may be the only way to do it without having to become a surveillance state (and keep in mind that the surveillance will not stop 100%).

The sad thing is that we have less than 10 years.....

Curt said at September 16, 2003 12:37 PM:

The fundamental focus on a faith in technology to create or solve terrorism is what mistaken. Focusing on individuals is what is needed. Have nuclear weapons changed the face of security in the world for better or the worse? Technology will always continue to change. Fundamental human nature does not change. Rather than "Big Brother" attempting to "protect" us via technology, the alternative is that we act as individuals to provide a detection and deterrent capability. We as individuals should act to reduce the size of government, and focus on what it takes to raise healthy, productive and morally grounded individuals. After all, it is the individual that houses the evil that would put technology (from swords to nukes) to evil purposes. It's the individual (or the gov't)that drives good and evil; technology is neutral.
CJ

Randall Parker said at September 16, 2003 1:11 PM:

Shannon, Yes, for instance, the same microfluidics advances that will eventually allow someone to build a smallpox virus will also allow more rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases and the more rapid development of treatments to stop plagues. But in the case of pathogen creators and pathogen defenders how can we know that the technological trends will favor the defenders? They might. But even if that is the case that is not even the worst doomsday scenario imaginable anyway.

The worst scenario imaginable is probably nanotech goo. If someone can build a totally new kind of organism that can outcompete every single organism now in existence then how to defend against it? Someone could release it into the ocean to float to the bottom and it might be able to chew up life on a huge area at the bottom of the ocean for months before anyone noticed. By then the organism could cause such damage that, for instance, methane clathrates could be changed to release enough methane into the atmosphere to kill us all.

Another major avenue of attack that is not as calamitous for the entire human species but which would still result in millions dead is going to come from the steady decrease in the difficulty of making nuclear weapons. The cost of doing so will steadily fall. The footprint created by attempts to do so will become smaller as dual-use technologies steadily advance. Will we be able to defend ourselves against small groups who, say, make nuclear weapons in the country they intend to attack? Under that scenario it wouldn't be enough to just, say, search every ship at sea before letting the ship come into port. The nukes could be made in the country that is to be attacked.

Robert Jacoby, I don't expect governments are going to be willing to become smaller and less invasive in our lives just to make smaller targets. But even if they would will that protect us? We still have to deal with the extreme outliers who just want to kill a lot of people for other reasons. Some environmentalist extremist could decide that humans are a pox on all the other species and that Gaia would be better off without us infecting her blessed Earth Mother Soul. Or someone could be like that group that committed suicide to hitch a ride on a passing comet in order to meet the aliens who are waiting to show us utopia on a travelling comet. They might decide to kill us for our own good so that we can all meet their ancient alien friends who all want to bring us to meet Ramthra who is waiting for our souls 10 million light years away. It sounds absurd to even cite this as an example but we have that case and Jonestown as just two examples of the kinds of insane ideas people get into their heads and act upon. Or imagine some bizarre Christian sect that decides it is their responsibility to bring on Armageddon in order to bring Jesus back. Far-fetched? Hardly seems like it when we consider all the other extremists that are already out there stating other dangerous ideas.

Curt, focusing on individuals: hey, if we genetically reengineer minds we are going to change a lot of individuals.

Look folks, I'm not happy with my two offered choices for how to deal with these future threats. I'm in no hurry to implement either of them before we have to and I'm all in favor of an assortment of other steps to take to, for instance, greatly slow the proliferatrion of nuclear weapons and to be able to more rapidly make better vaccines and antibiotics. But if technological advances are going to shift the balance in favor of extremist small groups and individual attackers then we have an enormous problem looming in our future.

Shannon Love said at September 16, 2003 2:47 PM:

Randall Parker,

I should also point out that the diffusion of destructive power outward into smaller and smaller groups is the main physical driving force for democracy and egalitarianism. In eras when technology and environment concentrated military power in a few specialist aristocracies arose. Most of the empires of history were based on the conquest of horse mounted warriors who spent their entire lives training for war. Such warriors could control populations literally a hundred times larger than themselves by using superior tactical mobility combined with overwhelming shock in actual combat. The ordinary peasant could not hope to compete without a similar huge investment in time and resources. The coming of the fire arms destroyed this power asymmetry making it possible for someone with just a few hours training to kill an armored aristocratic horseman at a distance. After the mass adoption of the firearm, military victory depended on mass mobilization. It required that elites allow the ordinary people a say in government and overtime destroyed the ancient social order.

Most oppressive regimes in the world today relay on on a technological advantage given to them by imported technology. As the local economy develops its own tech base it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain an oppressive regime. The number of people capable of creating technological attacks and the number of systems which can be attacked increases. The economy also becomes vulnerable to non-violent actions such as strikes by workers running critical systems. Such activities contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the ongoing liberalization of China.

In short, the diffusion of greater killing power outward into greater populations has been occurring for the last 500 years and it has generally lead to more democratic government and more egalitarian societies. I think we can expect to see more of this in the future.

William Palmer said at September 16, 2003 3:58 PM:

This is what John Arquilla of Rand has been talking about for several years. See his book "Networks and Netwars".

Not only is this concept of more and more damage by smaller and smaller groups important, but also are its inferences: 1. No deterrence is possible. 2.Retaliation is very difficult. 3.One cannot strike leaders as there is no hierarchy. 4. There may be no doctrine to attack by suasion. 5. Further, if there are temporary alliances between terrorist 'particles', it allows what Mr. Arquilla calls 'swarming'. This means that very large targets can be attacked on occassion with enormous effect.

I'm delighted you are discussing this, as it is a picture of our ultimate foe; and, of course, it amounts to defending against a sort of holographic war, wherein a grid's nodes can be obliterated without destroying its ultimate purpose, viz. to get us.

Trent Telenko said at September 16, 2003 4:09 PM:

Randell,

For at least the next 10 years it will take a large corporate organization or a state to do WMD, improvised or intentional. Al-Qaeda required a state sanctuary -- Afghanistan -- and the finiancial and intelligence support of several other states (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran among others) to pull off 9/11/2001. Those linbkages and financial systems have been either destroyed or highly disrupted in the last two years.

The US government's national security strategy calls for the systematic elimination of terrorist supporting regimes, which it is accomplishing. In 10 years time there will be no terrorist supporting states or large terrorist supporting organizations.

The biggest issue with WMD in the near term is internal to the US government. The turf wars in putting together and running the Operation Iraqi Freedom WMD hunter-killer teams show that the military, State Dept. and the other three letter intelligence/national security agencies don't have their act together in the event of a coup in Pakistan or North Korea that results in loose nukes. We know that they are not prepared now because they were not prepared to execute for Iraq after a year's certainty that Iraq would be militarily conquered. There is no certainty that we will be dealing with Pakistani nukes, so nothing has ben done o prepare, and the first warning that we may get of an Islamist coup is an ISU nuke going off in Pakistan's capitol city to kill Musharef (sp?).

The longer term threat is two fold. First, that the American people loses patience with the war and resolves it with American WMD. This could happen because of a political failure of will that results in an attempted 'cut and run,' or just plain screw up with Pakistan, so that our opponents will hit us with another WMD. The rage in the aftermath of such an attack will result in American WMD retaliation on the entire "list of usual suspects." America could not be certain who attacked, but it could be systematic in its retaliation just to be sure.

Second, that there would remain areas of chaos (see Somalia and Congo) where "desk top" scale biotechnology labs could cook up biotech hell bugs before the technology allows for quick response biodefenses to be fielded.

These two threats are why anyone who is anyone in the Pentagon transformation biz has started to realize the key American military transformation of the next five years is population control. All the stuff that I am seeing about military bandwidth needs seems to be only a enabling step towards the ultimate goal of developing an "infostructure" that allows positive control of people via invasive 'chipping' ala pet I.D.s of "people/populations of interest" and wide area biometric and visual populations/vehicle tracking nets of the rest.

Non-citizens and citizen criminal parolees will be invasively chipped first as conditions of long term entry and parole release. This is an administrative law end run on a large number of civil rights laws that will pass constitutional muster given who is being chipped.

The technology is going to be deployed over seas first in support of our population control efforts in the Arab world. Europe and Israel will follow. Then we will see it here in the States.

John said at September 16, 2003 5:12 PM:

I regret I skimmed the comments and am not sure if someone posted this already, but it seems to me that one alternative has been overlooked.

I believe humans will be bioengeneered to be more resistant to devastating attacks. Radiation resistance, tougher skin and bones, resistance to all disease, multiple backup organs, mechanical backup systems, extra brain support mechanisms in the event of catestrophic failure of the body, brain backups, cloning, etc. Engineering humans to be better defended is just the logical conclusion of the concept of smaller redundant autonomous systems.

Tadeusz said at September 16, 2003 8:11 PM:

"The Great Reckoning", an economic forecast of doom, failed in its message of a coming Great Depression, but it described some of the things Randall seems to be getting at. Military power relationships drive the basic shape of a society. Gunpowder, cannons, and the large armies to use them required large states to use them effectively, and they easily destroyed the old small units which had been able to thumb their nose at the world before the Gunpowder Revolution. In other words, a castle made a thief in armor near invulnerable, but gunpowder changed that.

The Ancient Greek city-states had a democracy of those who could afford the armor and weapons of the phalanx, and since the phalanx was an inherently group creation that made each member far more effective inside the team than outside, they had democracy.

This holds interesting parralels for today. Will not technologies arise that are so complicated that only a group of individual specialists with lots of error cross-checkng can handle it? Are not many already here? Each specialists will be needed by the group, but the specialist needs the group as well to be truly effective. Thus I see a democracy, and will these groups not be more capable than a single person? Of course, they will be.

This future if it goes well will probably teach good group skills, rapid learning, methods of defending oneself(the elite will learn to bow to each other rather than shake hands), and it will teach resilience under teh weight of the inevitable tragedies.

Remember we lost 20M in the 1918? Flu which most people nowadays have no idea that it occurred. Bad things will happen, our defenses will kick in, we'll learn better, and then we'll cope. At least that what I hope will happen.

Tadeusz

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at September 16, 2003 9:38 PM:

I disagree with the comment that for the next ten years it will require a large corporation or a government to make weapons of mass destruction. Today, this is only the case with nuclear weapons. It takes little infrastructure to produce chemical weapons. It also takes very little to produce biological weapons. For example, Anthrax is endemic throughout the world, including the United States. Thus a determined individual should have little trouble procuring it. The main obstacle to killing lots of people with Anthrax is weaponizing it:

1) achieving a sufficiently nasty strain, which can be done either by selective growth in a lab or by genetic engineering, which today can be done with little equipment.

2) creating spores of a suitable size. I don't know how it is done, but it is highly likely that it doesn't require much equipment, but rather expertise. That information may be easier to get in the future. Certainly the 2001 Anthrax terrorist knew how to create proper spores.

Thus a single individual, or a small cell, can, with enough work and luck, produce a very nasty weapon. If they start with the flu virus, and add a little genetic tinkering, the damage could be far worse. Again, this does not require a large facility or organization. My daughter genetically engineers viruses as a side effect of her research (it's just a tool, not even a goal). This stuff is not hard to do!

Furthermore, there are already quantities of WMD's which might be acquired. Many, many countries have various forms of nerve agents. The former USSR had enormous stocks of very dangerous biological and chemical weapons, and a large number of people with knowledge of how to make them.

I am not willing to take an evolutionary approach and simply say that bad stuff will happen, we will learn, and life will go on. Because the life of myself or someone dear to me might NOT go on in these scenarios! I think we need to do lots of things to reduce the danger - one of which is improved surveillance (the poorly named PATRIOT act is barely a start).

The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum said at September 17, 2003 12:38 AM:

Randall,
Before we get *too* fearful of trusting ourselves and our fellow citizens with the fruits of civil liberty perhaps we should keep a couple of things in mind:

The place is Northfield, Minnesota.

The time is September 7, 1876

http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/History/jamesnorthfield.htm


Lest we think the spirit of Northfield is not with us today here is something else to read:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2003/09/14/state0936EDT0016.DTL

The increased power of an individual merely means an increased power of those who support our Republic to keep that public in good shape. So long as we are citizens rather than subjects we have no reason to fear. ^_^

The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum said at September 17, 2003 12:43 AM:

"I too see the emergence of a global surveillance society. In a world of no privacy there will need to be a counter value proposition to keep civil unrest during the transition though, the right to self. That is speech, cognition, emotions, sensations. Give people the right to do what they want with their body and mind, so far as it doesn't impinge or hurt some else (this means whole lot of changes to long standing laws around drugs, prostitution, euthanasia, etc--a) and then I could imagine a relatively peaceful transition to giving up all privacy."

Zack,
Perhaps, then again perhaps not. The evidence seems to be that both the FBI and CIA lacked the ability to make proper use of such powers as they already have:

http://www.instapundit.com/archives/010474.php

With devotion to duty like that do you really trust these boobs with our privacy? o_O I suppose we *could* go the David Brin route and declare that if we can't have secrets the government can't have them either but how well would that work in practice?

The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum said at September 17, 2003 1:18 AM:

"In short, the diffusion of greater killing power outward into greater populations has been occurring for the last 500 years and it has generally lead to more democratic government and more egalitarian societies. I think we can expect to see more of this in the future."

Shannon,
Very true! These sort of choices and fears are never new. One reason England did well against the French knights at Agincourt is that from the time of Edward III on the English kings had decided that on every Sunday the English peasents would practice the longbow for proficiency and thus hold in their hands the power to kill a king or a lesser noble at will (Lest people think I exaggerate let me remind them that even before Edward's time William Rufus had died just that way in a "hunting accident" that may or may not have been an accident!). And because every peasant did hold in his hands the means to kill a king that in turn meant that the rulers of England had to be careful to respect those whom they ruled while French rulers and ruled studied new ways to be oppressed.

Note however, independently of the question of whether increased destructive power in the hands of an individual, that in spite of a civil war England held Calais and other portions of France all the way into the time of Queen Mary because the French "designated protectors" smote like sheep against the English knights backed by longbowmen. To some extent all internal security is a tradeoff against external security and you cannot really strengthen one without weakening the other. ^_~

"I am not willing to take an evolutionary approach and simply say that bad stuff will happen, we will learn, and life will go on. Because the life of myself or someone dear to me might NOT go on in these scenarios! I think we need to do lots of things to reduce the danger - one of which is improved surveillance (the poorly named PATRIOT act is barely a start)."

John,
In that case I kinda hope that you enjoy the safety of life under a Kim il or Caligula because that really is where *too* strong a "safety over liberty" attitude ultimately leads. The one thing I would tatoo upon the forehead of anyone who supports the strengthening of police powers beyond what is needed for wartime is this: "There is no safety. There never was any safety. There never will be any safety. There are only degrees of risk. The surrender of liberty for the sake of safety is merely suicide for the sake of an illusion."

And I would use a rusty needle! ^_~

I'm sorry but a Pol Pot scares me more than a Unibomber does. Given the scales involved the latter will always be the greater threat.

As for the anthrax, my suspicion is that it was the work of a hostile government of the sort that would kidnap random youths off the street of Japan rather than of an individual.

Randall Parker said at September 17, 2003 1:22 AM:

Boojum, So none of our free citizens (blessed as they all are with certain unalienable rights and the enlightenment that the possession of such rights bestows on us all) has ever decided to become a serial killer or to go up in a tower and start blowing away people?

Also, what to do about the 6 or 7 other billion people in the world and the fact that some of them really really dislike us? Some don't live in freedom and some have rather different views of the relationship between individual and government. Hey, some dislike us for the things about us that we most like about ourselves on our better days: You know, free speech, freedom of religion, your basic Bill Of Rights stuff.

Also, on the subject of the Surveillance Society: It already is emerging. David Brin thinks the death of privacy is the inevitable result of technological advances that will make it increasingly easier for everyone to watch everyone else. It isn't so much a future that he is arguing for as an inevitable outcome that he sees. I agree with him fwiw.

John Tillinghast said at September 17, 2003 1:32 AM:

I don't see why Randall thinks that nuclear weapons will be easy for a few people to produce, even in 50 years.
The limitation on building nuclear weapons comes from how rare the relevant isotopes are.
Nanotechnology doesn't change that. It doesn't mean you can transmute elements or add neutrons to nuclei. If we're lucky we'll learn to manipulate chemical bonds well -- nuclear bonds are several orders of magnitude smaller AND higher-energy.
In contrast, genetic engineering technology is relatively cheap, portable, and concealable. The techniques are being learned every day by hundreds of thousands of science students and technicians in training.
Over the 1990s Saddam Hussein invested more and more money and resources in biological weapons. Who would know better than him?

Randall Parker said at September 17, 2003 1:45 AM:

John Tillinghast, the nuclear isotope problem is two problems: 1) get the uranium ore. 2) separate out the isotope you want. Technological advances will make both easier to do. 50 years from now someone will be able to have their own robot dig down to get the ore. Anyone situated on land that has uranium under it could send the robot down from their basement. Or just drill down and then send small devices down to expand into an area at the proper depth. As for separating out the ore: make genetically engineed bacteria to separate out the uranium. You'd still probably need a centrifuge to separate out the particular isotope though.

Look, are mining and ore purification not going to become enormously easier to do and cheaper to do in 50 years time? If mining operations can be done by a single person then the biggest problem for the solitary uranium miner will be to escape detection.

The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum said at September 17, 2003 2:28 AM:

Randall,
Heh! Point to you. ^_^ However, please note that snipers in a tower are less likely to be an issue if the general citzenry has both the liberty and the ability to shoot back. That was and is the point of my Northfield link. But let's assume the worse. How many John Wayne Gacys armed with nanites do you think it takes to equal the death toll of a Pol Pot armed with nanites?

And my comment of the tradeoffs between external and internal security still apply. Those people that hate us are more likely to be able to do things *to* us if our own government concentrates too hard on pulling *our* teeth rather than theirs. Note for example that a prime reason that China ended up as being any European's football in the mid-1800s was that they had crippled both their populace and their military for the sake of internal security. They had already been making those choices in 1587 and by the time of the Opium Wars they had been making them too long to know how to change their minds. You can't have an Audie Murphey if you take too many steps to prevent a Unibomber.

As for surveilance being inevitable maybe, maybe not. It depends on what we choose. My own suspicion is that the saying "For every charm there's a countercharm" will ultimately bear out. Predictions on the path technology will take are common but where are the jetpacks and the bubble cities? For that matter where is the collapse of civilization in 1980 that the Club of Rome so fervantly believed in? I have seen too many arguements that "It's Destiny!" break upon the hard rock of what actually happened to have much faith in that one. In general things are inevitable only if we hypnotise ourselves into believing they are.

Bob Badour said at September 17, 2003 5:44 AM:

I see a glaring flaw in the logic of those who believe empowering the individual to use WMD technology will encourage democracy.

The military technologies that encourage democracy broadcast the power to focus extreme violence. The military technologies that encourage tyranny focus the power to broadcast extreme violence.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw democracy spread like a virus across the face of the earth at the point of rifles. (Consider that the colonies of democracies were ultimately subject to democratic rule even without direct representation.) The 20th century reintroduced malignant tyranny to the sound of automatic weapons fire.

The handheld automatic weapon, ie. the Tommie gun and its analogues, was the driving force behind the Brown Shirts, the SS, the Khmer Rouge and even La Cosa Nostra. When one thinks of individuals with WMD, one must think of Pol Pot or Al Capone with a finger on the button.

Randall Parker said at September 17, 2003 10:29 AM:

Boojum, Audie Murphy could see who he was shooting at (or at least he could in the movie version). In real life the initiative of an Audie Murphy would let him do what to stop some terrorist who just released a killer virus into the air of an airport? I think personal initiative is great. But there are threats coming down the pike that are going to happen regardless of whether we all carry guns or form self-organized militias independent of the government.

So is personal initiative important for the survival of a free society? The biggest thing reducing personal initiative is the nanny state. I find it remarkable that lots of people who either take little time to criticise or who actively defend Medicare, Medicade, welfare, Social Security, and all the other parts of the nanny state find lots and lots of time to criticise the Patriot Act. The nanny state decreases the costs of failing to provide for one's own future. The nanny state therefore decreases the individual sense of self-reliance and personal initiative far more dramatically than FBI wiretaps (which are fairly few in number and most of us have never been wiretapped). Yet somehow the Patriot Act is going to prevent America from producing new Audie Murphys and this is some enormous tragedy and yet the nanny state is to be nurtured and protected? Excuse me for not taking this argument seriously.

As for the threat to the populace from the Bush Administration: I think a lot of liberals and libertarians are taking a lot of lazy deceitful knee-jerk cheap shots at Ashcroft, the Patriot Act, the FBI, and the CIA. For a bracing view from a first class mind on the subject of the Patriot Act and domestic tracking of terrorists see Heather Mac Donald's writings on the subject. It is a lot easier to play critic than it is to understand exactly what really is going on and what ought to be done.

Tadeusz said at September 17, 2003 11:27 AM:

Don't get caught up in the drama of "we have only two horrible choices that dire necessity forces upon us!" Its a bit too much like a gothic romance. :)

Also don't forget Photoshop. Just because I can spy on everyone does not mean that I can prove anything.

Empowering individual citizens will likely make bioweapons not nearly as effective. If I am rich enough to afford decent defenses, and inventors come up with ones that are easy to tote(who wants to carry around a gas mask?), and society takes large-scale actions that help empower the individual then we should do well.

I could see a nut releasing airborne Ebola onto a city street. Sensors on nearby citizens start screaming in their ear, and relaying the data via wireless to BioContam servers to be evaluated by programs. Sensor in the doorway of the nearby Starbucks also begin screaming.

I'm down the street, and my cell phone call gets overridden with a computer voice telling me of "A serious biohazzard in the vicinity." I also see flashing signs up the street that are embedded into the sidewalk that glare warning; the color changes to red as the viral cloud disperses down the street toward me. For a quarter-second, I stare at a slowly approaching and invisible death. Then as I've trained myself too, I hit the #1 button on my cellphone which gets me a pre-chosen menu of data from the net on things like local airspeed, symptoms, etc..

My right hand is reaching behind me to the robovalet that carries my stuff. It has a simple program. Follow me at a two feet distance. Don't run over people. Don't smack into stuff, or fall down.

I take the biohazzard equipment that is on the robovalet, and don it quickly. Sensors in the suit alert me to an open vent I'd forgotten to close. It gets closed.

I check on people near me. Everyone seems fine. Someone gives me a nervous thumbs up as we stand there waiting. It would have made sense to run if it had been further away, but this close, and the risk of tearing your suit makes that non-feasible. I draw my gun from the robovalet. It makes me feel better. So does the prayers. The info I get from the Net also helps.

The cloud reaches me, but I'm safe behind my thin shield.

Down the street, the nutter reaches for another vial. One of those nearest to him, a guy, realizes what's going on, and did not bother to put on his suit. He shoots the nutter between the eyes. Only one vial gets released. The others are set for a deadman's relay, but a smart lady tosses the thing in a post office box.

Helicopters from Decontam and the Emergency Services are already spinning up, and shortly the E.R. people are grabbing the infected and tossing them in sealed containers which have sterilizing liquids in them, and general anti-virals are being dumped into these people's systems. One thing wars have taught us is that the faster the time between an injury, and medical care the better survivability. This is fast. The virus has barely time to set up shop, and counter-insurgency troops in the form of drugs are hunting for it already. In a very short time, specific anti-Ebola drugs will be used after the specific contagion is analyzed. Most of those affected never develop Ebola symptoms. They get the day off from work because the drugs used are pretty powerful themselves, but the precision of such drugs makes possible doses that would have been lethal in the 20th century. The smart lady comes down with symptoms, but pulls through.

The rest of us in the street watch as Decontam copters spray with antiseptic fog the whole street and much of the surrounding area.

We get checked out, and cleared as infection free.

My boss wonders why I'm an hour late to work, but I show him the note on my cellphone from the Decontam medic, and so they take it easy on me for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile court orders are issued, and surveillance tapes from companies, individuals, and government are opened, and investigators double-check the nutters last seventy-two hours of life. It turns out that he was the craziest of a small group of idiots who receive appropriate penalties for plotting to do something they would never have had the nerve to do. Except one of their number was more dedicated than they, and he took their mad ideas seriously.

OldFan said at September 17, 2003 11:56 AM:

As usual, science fiction is way ahead on this topic. About 15 years ago, Jerry Pournelle wrote about a world state [the Co-Dominion] that sought to contain the growing destructive power that technology gave to individuals. References were made to a several stunning acts of nuclear & biological terrorism that must have led to a general consensus that "militarily significant technology MUST be controlled".

Only two problems with that:
A. ALL technology is potentially destructive.
B. In order to control all technology, you end up controlling almost
EVERYTHING.
He gives the example of college students requiring security clearance to learn basic physics, chemistry or biology!

As a brighter side to this discussion, I would offer the thought that increasing technology is also likely to improve the mechanisms by which individuals and societies will respond to any attacks and, by increasing the size & productivity of populations, decreases the relative impact of any single terrorist attack.

The size and robustness of target set may well grow faster than the destructive potential of any small group or individual. This is analogous to the Strategic Bombing campaign in WWII, that saw increases in German production despite massive Allied bombing raids, primarily due to vigorous repair and dispersion efforts.

Bob Badour said at September 17, 2003 3:31 PM:

Tadeusz,

The story would have a very different outcome for a nuclear detonation because the cloud of plasma would approach at relativistic speeds.

Oldfan,

The problem with science fiction is the fiction is primary and the science secondary.

William Palmer said at September 17, 2003 3:46 PM:

We do have some interesting tools now to help us fight small terrorist groups or individuals.

One of these is unbelievable aerial reconnaissance resolution [open source resolution is less than 4 inches...see Aviation Week and Space Technology] which--with side-viewing and combined with turbulence nullification optics--can allow recognition of individual people, e.g. bin Laden.

Another tool is the use of coded mixtures of quantum dots. These are roughly 1-3 micron microcrystals made by the precipitates of selenium and cadmium liquids and can be designed to display hundreds of colors in a polarizing microscope so that a color 'bar code' can be made. They can be sprinkled like dust in a given area and they can stick to everything. Anyone or thing leaving the area may carry these markers. We can thus determine where this person or item has been by the specific array of colors seen in this dust: 38% cyan, 4% mauve, 42% pumpkin, etc.

And, finally, the development of high energy beamed radiation--like oxygen/flourine lasers--is on the near horizon...to which use, I'll leave to your imagination, especially if fortified by an appreciation of long stare-time UAVs.

But, nuts to all this, we really nead superb human intelligence, don't we?

John Farren said at September 17, 2003 3:55 PM:

As others have covered the potential of bio/chem countermeasures, I'm like to remark on nuclear WMD, and Randall's point on uranium extraction.

If you look at what "be the first geek on your block to build the Bomb" requires, the problem isn't uranium mining, it's isotopic separation for U-type bombs, and plutonium "breeding" for P-types.

Sure, you might be able to recover uranium from bedrock atom by atom, but would nanotech be capable of isotopic separation? Absent that, you're left with a pile of uranium that requires a U-235 enrichment process, or a plutonium production reactor, both very big conspicuous operations (and for U separation, an electicity demand that would make anybody sit up and take note) that look resistant to scaling down. If so, even with nanotech, non-state fissionables are not going to be a problem for quite some time. Though I would add that if some sort of nanotech based enrichment or contolled fission reaction does prove practicable, then I'm going to start drinking even heavier than i am now.

Randall Parker said at September 17, 2003 4:18 PM:

John Farren, I've read that uranium enrichment centrifuges take a lot of power. But I've never seen it quantified. Does anyone have any idea of just how many kilowatt-hours of electricity would be needed to operate uranium centrifuges long enough to do enough separation to make a bomb? The estimate would also provide the basis for calculating the approximate cost of the needed electricity.


Trent Telenko said at September 17, 2003 4:51 PM:

John Moore,

The specific technology needed to create the weaponized anthrax spores requires a major corporate sized investment and is not in the range where "lone gunmen" or small McVeigh style conspiracies can pull off. Anyone who thinks differently is a fool or in the FBI...but I repeat myself.

The key technology for delivering bioweapons is the spore particle carrier technology that only the USA, Russia, Great Britain and Iraq have been publically acknowleged as having achieved. That is why the anthrax that slimed Daschle et al was most likely Iraqi. It fit no known profiles for such spores and the only bioweapons program the US intelligence services had not compromised was the Iraqi one.

As for chemical weapons, I live near the Houston area. Any improvised chemcal weapon that isn't a persistent nerve or blister agent is readily delt with by typical HazMat procedures. It is hard for a mass constrained due to transportation visibility terrorist to beat a derailed train with several tank cars leaking Hydrogen Sulfide or some other industrial chemical nasty. The high end of a mass conspiracy chemical/bio attack was the Aum Shin Ri-Ku cult. Its results were underwhelming to say the least.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at September 17, 2003 9:49 PM:

Randall,
There are newer enrichment technologies that may be much easier. For example, laser enrichment purportedly requires a lot less equipment.

Trent,
Regarding Anthrax spores, you are confusing investment to obtain knowledge in the first place with the potential easy availability of that knowledge later. How may ex-Soviet technicians are there around who, for a few tens of thousands of dollars, would tell you how to make the spores properly? It isn't an issue of some huge machine, it is an issue of keeping the spores from clinging together due to static electricity. In other words, it's a secret formula for a simple compound, and perhaps some milling. While I have no idea if the FBI is right about the Anthrax incident, there was enough information released to make clear that this could have been a basement operation.

The difference between chemical weapons and hazmat incidents is the intent and resulting intelligence of deployment of the agent. The typical Hazmat incident is localized and rapidly detected. A chemical weapons release might be spread out over a wider area, and depending on the agent, might not be detected for some time. We know that several of the 9-11 conspirators were investigating crop dusters. These are suitable for dispersing chemical agents over a wide area with no warnning.

Or, try this for a hazmat example: Bhopal, India. That was equivalent to a significant chemical attack, and yet was due to a simple mistake.

And you didn't mention other pathogens. For example, an antiobiotic resistant plague, spread through the air to cause pneumonic plague, is extremely dangerous, almost 100% lethal, and spreads rapidly. How to make it? Get some plague... easy enough to do... go to the plagued Prairie Dog towns in Colorado or Wyoming and get some diseased animals. Then grow the plague in incubators (easy to make). Cyclically breed for resistance (I'm not going to go into details in case some Ted Bundy is reading this)! This is *really* easy to do and does "genetic engineering" the old fashioned way - by selective breeding. Take the result, and disperse it into the air at a sporting event.

Quick black death!

Bob Badour said at September 18, 2003 6:40 AM:

John,

Bundy was smart enough to figure out how to do that on his own. Ditto the Unabomber.

On the bright side, bioweapons delivery systems have so far proved ineffective for causing epidemic let alone pandemic.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at September 18, 2003 3:25 PM:

Yeah, unfortunately Bundy was smart (as too many sociopaths are) and the Unabomber was brilliant but schizophrenic. But you know what I mean.

Perhaps a Tim McVeigh would be a better example than Bundy.

Trent Telenko said at September 20, 2003 1:55 PM:

>Regarding Anthrax spores, you are confusing investment to obtain knowledge in the first place with the potential easy
>availability of that knowledge later. How may ex-Soviet technicians are there around who, for a few tens of thousands
>of dollars, would tell you how to make the spores properly?

The American and Soviet methods of spore production used milling machines and chemical processes whose capital equipment requirements are not scalable to a "lone gunman" mad scientist or a terrorist group on the run. You need a state or a corporation scale investment in time people and fixed facilities.

The spores that the FBI found were not made by either the American or Soviet method. The working hypothosis that fits most closely the available public domain information is that it was Iraq stuff whose equipment was transported to Syria before/during Saddam's fall.

As for placement of HazMat spills versus terrorist placement, orders of magnitude mean things. We are talking kilograms versus kilotons of HazMat if we are using Bhopal, India as a benchmark versus terrorists. The routes of really massive HazMat shipments through heavily populated areas via road and rail means spills by them simply overwhelm the small mass that terrorists can transport in terms of area affect foot print.

Then there is the aerosol problem. Aum Shin Ri-Ku used both biologicals and sarin in its terrorist attacks and still managed to kill less than a dozen people. The unique weaponization technology involved in delivering an effective bio-chemical attack is still closely held and requires large organizations/investment. That is why the elimination of terrorist supporitng regimes is the top American priority.

The one thing we know about al-Qaeda and its ilk is that they like either blood close up or really big Hollywood style explosions. They also keep going after the same targets again and again until they get them. They did it with the USS Cole, they did it with the WTC.

The next attack in America will be something they tried to attack before that is a symbol of America *to them*. And it is going to be really visual to feed their fantasy ideology. Biochemical weapons are "sexy" but they don't scratch that psychological itch.


William Palmer said at September 20, 2003 4:35 PM:

About 3 years ago a biologist in Australia was able to tag interleukin III to some murine pox virus. Apparently this virus became many times more virulent, and the article in Science News implied that his lab was terrified. I have never seen a repeat of this story.

So, I agree that individuals or small groups with limited resources will probably eventually find it easy to kill many of us.

But, if such 'microwarfare' (or holographic warfare if there are loose groups fighting us)becomes the norm, then it will become true that most wars become preventive. They are preventive simply because society will find that it cannot tolerate a single attack. This makes our war one of robust intelligence and assassination; and the sooner we understand this and get moving the fewer cities (or regions) will be lost.

But we must walk carefully. Intelligence means some loss of privacy. Most tyranny has come from states. Some day our privacy may be needed to organize against state tyranny. Who knows?

Randall Parker said at September 20, 2003 5:41 PM:

William Palmer, The story that you refer to was reported by several publications and you can easily google it up. Yes, it illustrates how easy it will be to create a 100% fatal virus in the future. The mice infected by it all died.

Trent, John Moore, the important point about anthrax is that surely eventually a method for making highly airborne anthrax particles that is easy and cheap to implement will become widely know. Generally speaking, things that are difficult to do now will become easier and cheaper to do in the future. Advances in technologies across a very large front ensure this. The key question is whether defensive measures will be developed that keep pace in all cases with those offensive measures that will become easy to employ by small numbers of people.

While anthrax may eventually kill a lot of people somewhere at some point it does not strike me as one of the really big league biological threats. Many drugs will stop it and there are drugs under development to neutralize its toxins. Also, it is not easily transmissible from person to person. It just does not have the characteristics needed for a pathogen that is going to kill millions.

If you want to worry about a killer pathogen then the biggest potential threats are viral.

charles said at September 24, 2003 3:38 AM:

This sounds amazingly like arguments put forward time and again by people who fear individuals and require
"authority" to "protect us" from the other evil individuals. The concept is anti-liberty at its heart.
And for one of the smartest people on the net to say it is a bit shocking. Of course with intelligence does not necessarily come wisdom.

It is telling that the proposed solutions are to either eliminate the very concept of privacy and individual liberty.. or .. re-engineer human beings as cattle. The first suggestion creates a world police state that makes 1984 look tame.. and most likely Creates the very terror it claims to combat. (Sound familiar?). The second requires genetically engineering human beings into docile cattle. Which makes them no longer human, could possibly be viewed as unacceptable by people who would indeed become terrorists.. or freedom fighters depending on ones political view. And their is that pesky evolution thing. One small nation with unaltered individuals would most likely be able to militarily,economically, and or genetically eliminate this new "sheeple" race.. as the very thing that makes them sheeple.. makes them prey.. not predator.

And the most truely relevant argument is that people already do have this power. Start a breeding farm of rats in a storage shed. Infect them with smallpox, bubonic plague, or any of dozens of diseases. Release them at various locations in New York, Chicago, Paris.. any big city.. and you have the Great Death. It isnt capability that keeps people from committing atrocity. It isnt an all powerful police state. It isnt even so much morality. It is the good in human nature. Something armchair sociopolitical theorists like Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Pot et al repeatedly throughout history fail to see in human kind. And its the thing that saves us from them.

One would hope someday tyrannical anti-liberal socio-political idioTogies would be a thing of the past. It seems foolishness and fear will always lead a few down this oft trodden path to darkness.

(forgive me but this hitlerian eugenic police state posting needed to be countered).

Bob Badour said at September 24, 2003 6:16 AM:

Charles,

Your post seems based mostly on fallacies. For instance, reservoirs of plague among rodents already exist, and they result in a handful of human cases every year. North America has very large reservoirs of at least one extremely fatal disease, Hanta, among its rodent population without causing pandemic.

Privacy and liberty are not equivalent. One can have liberty without privacy, and one can have privacy without liberty. I would choose liberty without privacy over privacy without liberty.

Species already exist that demonstrate high levels of conformance to a social order and that also demonstrate the ability to put on a ferocious and resolute cooperative defense or offense. Engineering humans for obedience and lawfulness will not necessarily turn humans into sheep.

The world needed to defend itself against Hitler. The world needed to defend itself against Stalin. Now and in the future, we need to defend against Bin Ladens.

Randall Parker said at September 24, 2003 11:12 AM:

Charles, Regards "the armchair sociopolitical theorists like Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Pot": A third of the population of Cambodia were not saved by "the good in human nature". They died. Millions of Jews were not saved from Hitler by "the good in human nature". They died too. A few thousand people riding in airplanes and sitting in ground structures were not saved by "the good in human nature" on Sept 11, 2001. They also died. You see a pattern here? Currently there are people dying every day in North Korea. Some are killed by the regime and others die of starvation or illness because of how the regime operates. The good of human nature is not saving them either. The murder rate in Baghdad is currently running at a yearly rate of over 300 per 100,000 (contrast that with the level in, say, the Dakotas where it is less than 2 per 100,000). Where is this evil in human nature coming from and why can't the US Army put a stop to it? Why are plenty of others around the world being killed or tortured or raped daily in spite of the good in human nature?

I'm not willing to embrace a dreamy optimistic view of human nature in the face of enormous amounts of evidence to the contrary. My post is about the problems the statistical outliers will pose (Pol Pot, Hitler, Bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, Timothy McVeigh, and those who are committing murder and rape in Baghdad all examples of outliers to various degrees). The point I'm arguing is that the statistical outliers are not going to need to take over a government in order to kill a lot of people. The power that the outliers will be able to wield will become far greater in the future.

As for what can be done by those intent on mass murder now: It is much harder for those people now than it will be in the fure. Why else have't the Al Qaeda folks launched another large attack? We've been able to stop them.

As for your scenario: First of all, how are you going to get the smallpox? Secondly, smallpox is transmitted human-to-human. So that is not even a good example. Thirdly, rats are a bad example. Why don't humans get as much disease from rats as we used to? Because an increasing number of us have proper floors and walls that keep the rats away from us. No, you can not infect rats with dozens of diseases that humans can get too. Most diseases are species specific to varying degrees. It is a rare mutational event that allows, say, a virus to hop from an animal in a South China live animal market to a human and thereby threaten to cause an epidemic (can you say SARS? sure).

What will change in the future to make your scenario more possible is that scienctists will learn what it is that allows some pathogens to live in both humans and rats or humans and dogs or humans and kitty cats. So then your scenario will become a greater threat. The question I have is whether the ability to make killer pathogens will advance more or less rapidly than the ability to make vaccines, drugs, and gene therapies that counter the pathogens. My guess is that eventually it will become possible to make pathogens that our immune systems will be unable to defeat even with the help of vaccines. So then we eventually will have to resort to drugs and gene therapies to stop pathogens. Will drug and gene therapy development be able to be dome rapidly enough after an epidemic starts to be able to stop it before the death toll becomes too large? It is not clear.

But then there is the threat from nuclear proliferation. We can not individually defend ourselves against it by any means short of moving out into rural areas. So either governments must identify and stop the nuclear proliferators (which is becoming harder to do) or we will have to move to a more rural pattern of population distribution.


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