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Bio-security after 9/11: public health or a threat to public health?


Correspondence to: Uffe Juul Jensen, Department of Philosophy, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 7 building 1465, room 415, 8000, Aarhus C, Denmark; e-mail: filujj@hum.au.dk

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Various (real or hoax) anthrax attacks on US institutions in the wake of 9/11 led to a growing concern with threats to bio-security. How serious are these risks? Do they justify using enormous resources on preventing biohazards and securing ‘bio-safety’?

Bio-security initiatives are often presented as rooted in a concern for public health. But such initiatives are not only, perhaps not even primarily, based on the kind of ‘objective’ technology assessments that are presented as standards in the age of evidence-based medicine and public health. They are often based upon claims about a widespread public fear or even panic, and the need to diminish people's panic or anxiety.

It reminds me of my cold war childhood in Denmark. As a kind of health promotion strategy, we were instructed in how to act ‘If the (atomic) war comes’ (the title of a brochure distributed to all Danish homes). We were instructed how to prepare for war (i.e. a Soviet attack on Denmark), e.g. by storing cans with meatballs and in various other ways preparing for a possible ‘catastrophe’ analogous to a natural disaster, outside the realm of rational, public political discussion, negotiation and perhaps solution. The basic social and political conflict of the age was reconstructed as a kind of uncontrollable disaster, a source of collective fear and anxiety to be met only by people trying to protect their (and their families) individual lives. This ‘public health’ initiative, however, contributed to spreading fear and anxiety, distracting people from political assessment of the situation and its risk. The politics of cold war, the tensions between East and West, were re-constructed as personal or individual problems in the face of brute facts.

Critical anthropologists have argued that, in the same way, 9/11 has led to an illegitimate construction of the public as a panic-stricken mob. “How will the public react to a biological attack?” became a basic question behind US (and Western) policy.

This is one important consequence of 9/11 a basic ‘classic’ public health assumption or experience. People collectively are trying – and often have the capability – to face, to find ways to cope with, to meet or prevent challenges to their health and well-being. Yet at the same time, this has been overshadowed by the demonisation of ‘the other’ and the de-politicisation of conflicts threatening public health.