Steven Hatfill's Big Idea

So far, Dr. Steven Hatfill has gotten attention as the former army scientist named by John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in last year's anthrax attacks. Less well-known are Hatfill's intriguing proposals for responding to a biowar assault in America.

Hatfill has vehemently denied any connection with the anthrax case and says he has been vilified by the feds. He claims to have a background in the Special Forces here and in Africa. He also says he served in a South African unit called the Selous Scouts, which tried to overthrow the newly independent government of Zimbabwe. He has an Oxford degree and a South African medical certification, and he has worked at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington, D.C.

As a government researcher, he had top-level clearances at Fort Detrick, the military center for the study of germ and biological warfare, and until recently, he was employed by a major defense contractor specializing in countering bioterror attacks. Along the way, Hatfill participated in a 1998 George Washington University conference, at which he unfolded a startling plan for coping with tens of thousands of victims of an anthrax attack brought against a large U.S. city.

Hatfill's idea is to build up special “disaster evacuation” trains made up of linked shipping containers strung out behind an engine. The train would be loaded with antibiotics and would include a command center, an intelligence section and deployable vaccination stations.

The trains would also feature “intensive-care patient cars” built with special shock absorbers to cushion the ride. Patients would be brought to the train from the scene of the attack and speedily loaded on board. There would be “cut out cars” that could be dropped off to serve as temporary HQs and field hospitals. “Along with this comes a mortuary embalming station,” he told the audience. “This was originally developed by Arms Corps in South Africa with the concept that patients are embalmed on-site. This negates mass burials or graves. The remains are preserved. It can handle 800 bodies an hour. The bodies are embalmed, put into body bags and stored at room temperature for later burial when the incident is over.”

All told, Hatfill said, 27 such trains would be required; once in place, they would be but five or six hours from every major city in the nation.

Hatfill's hospital train bears a remarkable resemblance to the spectral “white train,” an apparition that has terrified far-right patriots for years. This mysterious creation is sometimes glimpsed across the countryside, stopping to send out raiding parties that capture patriots. As the train races along the tracks, these prisoners are marched forward to a car right behind the engine, which contains a gas chamber. There, according to the lore, these defenders of democracy meet a ghastly end.

Under President George W. Bush's new plan for taming the fires raging across the West, the government would lift environmental constraints on some 2.5 million acres of federal land, letting the Forest Service go in, thin the trees and clear out the brush on the forest floor.

But Randal O'Toole of the Libertarian-minded Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Oregon, argues that “this plan treats the wrong acres and fails to correct the real problems with federal land management.”

O'Toole points out:

•The president's plan is expensive and too time-consuming to make sense. To accomplish what Bush wants, the feds would have to clean up 200 million acres. That would take 80 years and cost $100 billion.

•If the government were to concentrate on constructing firebreaks near communities and ridding private property of potential fuel for wildfires, it would make significant progress. Such a program would involve 2 million acres of land, not 200 million, and take perhaps a year or so.

•In addition, the Forest Service ought to follow the advice of most fire ecologists and let the fires burn. Currently, the government tries to suppress all the fires.

•The Forest Service mainly attacks forest fires with backfires—greatly increasing the size of the burned area. O'Toole notes, “A quarter to a third of the acres burned in the Biscuit Fire, which President Bush viewed today, were backfires lit by the Forest Service. By blaming fires on fuels, the Forest Service has deceived the president into giving it more money and power.”

•There's no data to show that excess fuel has made the situation worse. The average number of acres burned in the past five years was no more than in the first five years of the 1960s. The average number of firefighters has declined since the 1950s. And from 1970 through 1999, fire-suppression costs grew no faster than the rate of inflation.

Poor George. All he wants is a month's vacation, but these sticky problems keep cropping up. And some of them are just so confusing.

Take the latest Amtrak debacle. On the one hand, Bush has made it a centerpiece of his policy to press for free-market reforms, to let business show the government how to run its affairs. So he can hardly bail out the moribund railroad. Better to let the market have its way. On the other hand, as commander in chief of the armed forces, Bush has to make sure the nation is ready to defend itself from terrorist attacks. Among the principal cogs in any military strategy is a good transportation system, especially in the event of some sort of enormous chemical or biological attack. Key to this transportation apparatus is a nationwide working rail system. So what's poor Shrub to do?

Amtrak's two recent catastrophes—the Maryland derailment and forced sidelining of Acela express trains due to mechanical problems—gave fresh fodder to critics who say it's time to face facts and let the old railroad take the deep-six. Amtrak got $205 million in a short-term bailout earlier this summer and is seeking $1.2 billion over the next year. Up to now, the White House only has been willing to back $500 million.

If Amtrak goes down, the passengers can flee to the airlines, which in the wake of the Acela misfortune began offering cut-rate deals along the Washington-to-Boston corridor. But it's hard to believe capturing 10,000 daily Acela customers will save the airlines, which are just barely keeping their heads above water. At the same time, the airlines are going bankrupt or seeking aid to stay in business. After Sept. 11, Congress provided $15 billion to help them stay afloat. That wasn't enough, apparently. US Airways, the seventh largest airline, has debts of $7.8 billion and is seeking reorganization under the bankruptcy laws. American Airlines, the nation's largest, announced layoffs of 7,000 in August, along with cutbacks in flights. United wants $1.8 billion in government-guaranteed loans.

Truth be told, much of the nation's vital transportation infrastructure will have to be nationalized—in all but name. Of course, in this age of the almighty “free market,” no one dares say so.

With Saddam Hussein threatening to drag any U.S. assault right into Iraq's cities, it's worth considering again America's recent policies on the slaughter of innocent civilians. Marc Herold, a New Hampshire professor who tracks civilian casualties, compared U.S. compensation to Italian victims of the tramway accident with Chinese victims in the NATO bombing of its Belgrade embassy, and with Afghan civilian deaths. It comes down to this:

•Italian: $2 million per victim.

•Chinese: $150,000 per victim.

•Afghan: $100 per victim.

Research by Gabrielle Jackson and Cassandra Lewis.

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