Genies Out of the Bottle

March 31, 1995

As the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty comes up for a review of its first quarter-century next month, the menace of other weapons of mass destruction intrudes. The nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway March 20 and the difficulties of the United Nations in monitoring the chemical and biological warfare efforts of Iraq point to the growing accessibility of these evils.

After the nerve gas episode in the provincial town of Matsumoto last June, possibly aimed at judges hearing a lawsuit against the cult Aum Shinri Kyo, Japanese police wanted to crack down on the chemical proclivities of that group. There was a problem. To produce and possess the nerve gas sarin was not illegal in Japan.

Then the March 20 subway gassing shattered Japanese self-confidence. Last weekend, Japanese police finally seized the alarming chemical facilities at the cult's compound near Mt. Fuji. But on Thursday, two events followed up on that seizure.

A masked gunman wounded Japan's national police chief, who is heading the investigation into the gas attacks, and escaped on a bicycle. This in a country that has fewer shooting episodes a year than Baltimore City has murders.

And the Japanese parliament made possession of chemical weapons illegal. This is a byproduct of ratification of a treaty signed by 130 countries in 1993 to ban production and sale of chemical weapons and to require destruction of stockpiles.

Clearly, you don't have to be a government to release stuff that can paralyze a city or kill 10 people and sicken more than 5,500. A small terrorist group can do that. But you would need to be a government with large resources to wipe out whole populations this way. Chemical warfare is cumbersome and difficult, not to mention dangerous, needing many people and much equipment for distribution on a large scale. Terrorists' use of nerve gas, in other words, is an unconventional method of achieving about what explosives can do.

Biological warfare provides greater reach for fewer hands. It is difficult to target and therefore more dangerous. Returning from Baghdad this week, the head of the U.N. commission on Iraq's weapons, Rolf Ekeus, found progress on detecting and scrapping Iraq's chemical warfare "encouraging." But he pressed alarms that 17 tons of material that can be used to breed bacteria are not accounted for. He was concerned lest Iraq be able to bomb civilian populations with disease bacteria.

These genies are out of their bottles. They will become a domestic problem for the United States, which cannot stave off an inundation of assault rifles. They create alarm in Russia, which is experiencing a mushrooming of cults similar to, and including, Aum Shinri Kyo. The world has a lot to learn from how Japan copes with this problem.

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