Monday, November 12, 2001

Four years ago, on Oct. 30, 1997, the Centers for Disease Control threw a party. “Come celebrate this important public health achievement,” the announcement read. “The global eradication of smallpox is a true triumph of public health.”

The celebration included talks by CDC staffers on “the successful Global Smallpox Eradication.” Titles included “Smallpox Eradication: From Omega to Alpha” and “WHO [the World Health Organization] in Action.” A quotation from Horace Ogden’s “CDC and the Smallpox Crusade” received prominent display: “Smallpox eradication is a constant source of refreshment for the public health movement for all who believe that people of every country and culture can work effectively together to advance the human condition.”

In one sense, the CDC was right to celebrate. Smallpox for centuries had afflicted millions of people each year. As late as 1967, 2 million people were dying of the disease each year around the world, with millions more disfigured and sometimes blind.

Listing only a few prominent victims shows smallpox’s worldwide killing capacity through the ages. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D., Muslim caliph Abbul al-Abbas al-Saffah (“the blood shedder”) in 754 and Aztec Emperor Ciutlahuac in 1520 were victims. So were Emperor Fu-lin of China in 1661, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, King Nagassi of Ethiopia in 1700, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730 and King Louis XV of France in 1774.

If you skipped over the hard-to-pronounce Ciutlahuac in the list above, you missed one indication of how historically monumental smallpox has been. Smallpox was unknown in the New World until Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors introduced it. The disease devastated both the Aztecs and the Incas, and was instrumental in the downfall of their empires. What is now Mexico had about 25 million residents when the Spanish arrived in 1518, and a century later the number was 1.6 million.

So eradicating smallpox would certainly advance “the human condition.” But, sadly, there is something about that condition the CDC did not understand: human sin. The World Health Organization’s website was still proclaiming last month that “the best-known example of WHO’s accomplishments is the eradication of smallpox.” That appears to have been spoken too soon, in a world where evil men will turn good accomplishments into evil.

Conservatives tend to have a tragic sense of history, liberals a faith in man’s ability to move us toward utopia. Because liberalism dominates American and European culture, we stopped inoculating against smallpox, and now we are more vulnerable to it than at any time over the past two centuries. Now, what British historian Thomas Macaulay called “the most terrible of all the ministers of death” may soon be ministering at a neighborhood near you. WHO and CDC leaders showed knowledge of physical illness but ignorance of spiritual sickness.

None of this should point us toward despair. First, we have seen no outbreak yet: Maybe, just maybe, terrorists don’t have this bio-weapon in their arsenals. Every day that goes by without a report of smallpox or some other contagious disease unloosed is a day for rejoicing. Even though government leaders have known of this danger for some time, we do not now have enough smallpox vaccine to go around. A year from now, we will.

Second, smallpox is not contagious until the patient is already feeling terrible and showing signs of the illness; if we are alert, we should not be taken by surprise. The virus is not so easy to disseminate that it will outrun a quickly imposed quarantine.

Third, maybe the terrorists are just evil and not crazy. Smallpox unloosed is likely to spread not only in America but through the whole world, including the Middle East. Terrorists willing to kill themselves may not be willing to kill mothers, children and other residents of their own countries.

The doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” helped prevent nuclear warfare; maybe the possibility of mutual devastation will keep smallpox bottled up. We survived decades of nuclear standoff. We can survive this threat, as well. But in assessing future threats, we should remember to expect bad behavior as conservatives do, and not follow the path of liberalism by assuming the best.

Marvin Olasky is a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and editor of World magazine and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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