Thinking the unthinkable … in order to deal with it

The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ralph Gomory
Title: Thinking the unthinkable … in order to be able to do something about it
VTR: 4/10/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is a mathematics Ph.D. from Princeton, who taught there, then worked at IBM for 30 years, retiring as its Senior Vice President for Science and Technology in 1989, when he became President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Now that’s a most impressive CV and I’ve asked Dr. Ralph Gomory here mostly to share with us his and the Sloan Foundation’s profound concern and the things they’ve done about that concern that we Americans be able now to think the unthinkable in order to deal with it. I refer of course, to terrorism. Biological, chemical, nuclear and in whatever other forms sick minds can conjure up to injure us.

Now for all of the inane duct tape jokes that appeared on late night television and other centers of American higher learning, when in emergency mode early in February 2003 the Department of Homeland Security suddenly and rather awkwardly chose to announce, though without much explanation, just a couple of the small but practical and eminently do-able things Americans might think about to prepare for a terror alert. The fact is, as Dr. Gomory has said, “You can’t ask people to agree that the threat of bio-terrorism is huge and leave it at that. You have to give them something concrete they can do because their first question is going to be, ‘what can I do about it?’”.

Now, since my guest has led the Sloan Foundation in directing considerable resources to answering this question I would first ask him today just what can we do about the various terrorist threats against us, and what besides duct tape he has recommended to the office of Homeland Security.

GOMORY: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Now I don’t know whether your recommendations are secret. But what can you share with us about what you think we should be doing?

GOMORY: Well, I can tell you a lot of things. But I’d like to start by suggesting that you, you go to the website of the … it’s called “Ready.gov” and we worked on that very hard. “We” meaning a panel of experts and the DHS. I think you’ll find it’s coherent and full of practical suggestions. You’ll find duct tape there … it’s probably about item #21.

HEFFNER: How did it become item #1?

GOMORY: I think someone just kind of blurted it out. Frankly. And it caught people’s … I don’t know whether to say “imagination” … fancy … you know …

HEFFNER: Well, you’re making the assumption, then, that we can …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … do something about the threat we face.

GOMORY: Yes. I think that’s … I think you’re hitting on absolutely the key point. You know there are all kinds of weapons of mass destruction … starting with nuclear … then there are “dirty” bombs … then there’s chemical and the one that I personally think is the most dangerous … biological. And there’s certain characteristics about them that, that I think give you the right perspective. Nuclear … very hard to defend against. I mean when an atomic bomb goes off …

HEFFNER: That’s it.

GOMORY: That’s it. Yeah. I mean you can defend against the fall out and so forth. But the devastation is bound to be enormous. On the other hand, atomic bombs are hard to make. You either steal the difficult material, or you’re a fairly sophisticated group or nation. So really I think the best defense against atomic bombs is to contain non-proliferation.

What’s new is not that. Because we’ve lived with atomic bombs, you know, since the end of the Second World War. What’s new is the others. And I’ll concentrate on biological because I think it has the most extreme characteristics. In contrast with nuclear, it’s easy to make something like anthrax. Anthrax is fairly common. You can grow it, it doesn’t take much apparatus to do it. I mean it’s a slight exaggeration to say you could grow it in your kitchen, but it is in that direction very strongly.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the characteristics of a nuclear bomb. Nuclear bomb … hard to make, hard to defend. Biological attack … easy to get the material, relative easy to defend. So the real point is “yes”, these things are new. “Yes”, it’s easy for terrorists to make them. And “yes” we can defend against them, much better.

HEFFENR: Well, now that, of course …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … is the note that I wish you would strike.

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “it’s easier” …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … or comparatively …

GOMORY: Well let me give you a list of …

HEFFNER: Great.

GOMORY: … first of all … let’s take anthrax, just to be concrete. Okay. How can anthrax harm you? Frankly, it has to get into you. And how does it get in. Well, we have skins. So skins are really designed to prevent bugs from getting into us … things like anthrax or anything else. And so, it has to get in through a hole in the skin, of which there are very few. Right? Notably you have to breathe it in … mouth or nose, or rub it into your eyes or be so unlucky as to have an open cut. So, once you realize that there are only a few ways for anthrax to get in, you realize that, for example, a simple face mask, capable of filtering those small particles … I mean, you mean a loose weave material wouldn’t, wouldn’t work, is a very effective defense.

Being in a room which the anthrax, say released outside, cannot get into is a very effective defense. Let’s contrast that with nuclear. You’re in your room, bomb goes off outside, it doesn’t do you any good. But an ordinary room with a little extra sealing, and that’s where the duct tape comes in … is a very powerful biological shelter. And a third … so I’ve mentioned masks, I’ve mentioned closing up a room, and now I’ll mention filtering. All the air that you and I are breathing in this building has already been filtered.

Now those filters can be upgraded and when they’re upgraded they’ll take most of this stuff out. Or you could have one of those floor fans, you know, that people who have allergies … I have allergies … I use them. They, too, will filter out, say anthrax. So there are a lot of ways to prevent this from getting into the few openings where it can do harm.

HEFFENR: Now, are there ways that you feel …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … from your knowledge of who we are as a people …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFENR: … that we can make use … not “can” make use of …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … are likely to make use of?

GOMORY: Well, I’m going to take a two level approach. I think it depends whether we understand the threat. I think if people understand the nature of the threat and the fact that it’s defendable against, they will do it. I think most people … and awful lot of people sort of take the view that, “Well, these things are so horrible , we can’t do anything about them.” Which is dead wrong … there’s a great deal …

HEFFNER: Don’t say “dead wrong”, please.

GOMORY: [Laughter] Well, they say that … yes … it’s “live” wrong … right. And there’s a great deal you can do. And secondly, the thing I’d like to stress is that the threat is here to stay. There’s really nothing to do with Bin Laden, it has very little to do with Saddam Hussein and that crowd. They are just the current exemplars of people who might be behind such an attack, but actually any terrorist group would be capable of doing this … in, in the present or in the future.

HEFFNER: I …

GOMORY: Including Americans.

HEFFNER: I read a piece that you wrote recently …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and I was so impressed with that phenomenon …

GOMORY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … the press scared, but it was very, very real … this is here to stay …

GOMORY: It’s here to stay.

HEFFNER: … anyone can do it.

GOMORY: Yeah. That’s really how the Sloan Foundation got involved in this. We got involved in this before 9/11 … about … let’s say about three years ago because we saw this as a threat not caused by political instability, not caused by the Near East, but caused, unfortunately, by technological change. The advances in bio-technology and so forth, the number of people being trained is disseminating this kind of knowledge around the world. And it’s just easy to do. So, unfortunately, it’s built into our society … this new technology, widely diffused, will get into the hands of extremist groups.

HEFFNER: But you also say that new technology can protect us to a considerable extent, as well.

GOMORY: Yes. Yes. Absolutely correct. Even old technology like, you know, filters.

HEFFNER: How do we go about it then?

GOMORY: Well I think …there are two levels … and I think each of us as individuals can … I personally carry a little filter … in, in the Sloan Foundation we have evacuation kits, we have food in case we have to be stuck there because of an outside attack. We haven’t yet persuaded our landlord to put better filters in, but we’re working on that. It’s that kind of thing and I think that the government is launching an awareness campaign that’s the so-called “Ready” campaign to raise people’s awareness and I think we’ll be following up and trying to get people, businesses, to do the same thing.

HEFFNER: This has to be a matter then of education …

GOMORY: It is. Very well put. It’s education. Yeah.

HEFFNER: And where do we educate people these days?

GOMORY: Well, I think we ought to try everything because I think, you know, some people get educated through television. And some people get educated through books and we should have books. I’m very open to suggestions. I think we’re doing educating right now.

HEFFNER: Doing … talking about this, this subject here.

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: I guess the question that I keep coming back to …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … that plagues me … if I … shouldn’t use that word either …

GOMORY: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … has to do with willingness …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … on our part … and I guess that translates back into ability …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: …given who we are, what we have learned …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … particularly since the bomb or the bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … you’re right, the picture in our mind has been total catastrophe … short of that, there’s nothing we can do.

GOMORY: Yes. Right.

HEFFNER: Now, how do you change that basic, basic concept.

GOMORY: Well, I’m not sure I know how. I think what you do is you start and then you find out, you know, what works and what doesn’t. But I would say, if we look at history … I would say it makes us optimistic. First of all we did have rather extensive preparation against warfare … I mean what people remember is “Duck under your desk”, but a lot of people also built bomb shelters. But there’s was a considerable effort and awareness on the part of the population. Secondly, another very encouraging precedent is, oddly enough, the Y2K phenomenon … remember the year 2000 …

HEFFNER: Yes.

GOMORY: Right. Amazingly enough, in response to that threat, almost every significant business in America spend a tremendous amount of money … I mean I know one company that I was associated with spend, you know, about $200 million dollars up-grading the systems. Well, they did that because they were afraid of that threat. And they … whether they over-reacted I don’t know. But they did. So that I would say that on two occasions in the past, with the threat of atomic warfare with the Russians and with the Y2K thing, the businesses on the one hand and the people on the other hand, and the schools and everything else, did respond. So, if we’ve done it before, we can do it again.

HEFFNER: I would think that you would turn to …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … your medical colleagues, who have spoken about, talked about …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … dreamt about preventative medicine …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … for so long …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: …but unfortunately, rather unsuccessfully.

GOMORY: Well, I think … I think … you’re hitting on a very good point. There’s certainly a huge medical component. And I think there’s no doubt that the medical profession and the research … various research facilities headed by the National Institutes of Health in Washington are making a huge effort to get wide spectrum antibiotics to get vaccines against a long list of possible diseases that could be used as biological weapons. And so, so that side is definitely being worked on by large numbers of people.

HEFFNER: Yes. But I was thinking of something else.

GOMORY: Oh, excuse me.

HEFFNER: I was thinking of an approach …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … I was thinking of the phenomenon that insurance companies, health insurance … so frequently does not insure preventative medicine …

GOMORY: Ah, preventing … technique.

HEFFNER: Yes.

GOMORY: Well, that really means vaccines … then if … I think there’s two forms of prevention.

HEFFNER: Yeah.

GOMORY: There’s prevention that works after the stuff gets in you, let’s say … that would be a vaccine. Right. And there’s prevention in the sense of “don’t let it get in you”, which is what I’ve been talking about … and both of these dimensions really require some effort.

HEFFNER: Well, if we have not in the medical model …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … been geared psychologically well enough for that second kind of prevention …you’ve got a big, big job ahead of you to prepare us to prepare ourselves.

GOMORY: Well, I think if you put it in terms of my doing it, I would consider it quite a large task. But I think, you know, a lot of people are interested in it. The government is interested in it, and …

HEFFNER: To what degree is the Homeland Security apparatus geared to that approach?

GOMORY: Well, I think they’re, they’re … I think it … one thing that I think people don’t realize about the task that’s been given to Homeland Security is what an enormously difficult task it is. You see, they have some very large number of employees now because they now embrace the Coast Guard, Immigration and the Naturalization Service and a whole bunch of things.

But, what people don’t remember, is basically they’re a “start-up”. That is, they’re trying to do something for the first time …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

GOMORY: … so what you have is a new task that people don’t know how to do, that has many dimensions because you can look around and say, “well, can’t they blow up the bridges” and “can’t they blow up the chemical plants” and so forth … aside from the things I’m talking about …there’s the whole spectrum of conventional terrorism. And so they, they have an awful lot to do.

But certainly among the long list of things that they have to learn how to do, and I want to stress the fact that “learn how to do” is the position they’re in … it’s not like Department of Agriculture, if they made you Head of the Department of Agriculture, you would find out that what you’re going to do next year is very similar to what you did last year.

But if they made you Head of Homeland Security, you’d be looking around and wondering, “What the hell do I do?” Okay. So, it’s a huge task. They have to find out how to do it by starting to do it. And this will definitely be a part of it … the things I’ve talked about.

HEFFNER: I must admit that I was enormously concerned with the, with the duct tape jokes …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … not the duct tape suggestion …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … but with the damn jokes.

GOMORY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Because it … they did signal …

GOMORY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … an unwillingness to start at the bottom …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and to look all around us and to find out what are the little things …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that we can do.

GOMORY: Well, you know, people are all different. And I think people deal with fear and worry in many different ways. And some people will make a joke of it and other people will go out and pitch in. I think that … you know, in some sense that was publicity, and there’s a saying that all publicity is good publicity.

HEFFNER: If you spell the name right.

GOMORY: That’s right. And … well I don’t know if they spelled … how they spelled it. But another thing is that at the “Ready.gov” site, we’ve had about 10 million visitors in six weeks. So … and those people stay on the site as much as we can tell … because all these Internet statistics are, somewhat questionable … about 12 minutes.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that they’re not only going to the website, but they are then doing something as a result?

GOMORY: That’s a very good question and I don’t have the answer, yet. But we’re going to try to find that out after it’s been going on for a while. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Because that would be the key.

GOMORY: Definitely. But this is only the beginning. I mean … you see, my view is … look, the problem’s here and we’re stuck with it. I worry that if we’re successful in Iraq and someone catches Osama people will forget this stuff. Quite wrong.

Because if you think … let’s, let’s think … what are the last four terrorist incidents in the United States. I guess they were the Okalahoma City thing, the first World Trade thing, the second World Trade thing and the anthrax letters. Now the anthrax letters are ascribed by the authorities to a lone American. So we have two out of four are of American origin.

So … terrorists, and I’ve read about the history of terrorism and it’s a little daunting because you know we’re always going to have them, you know … people who believe in the second coming of this, that or the other thing. And they’re just very different. And in a society of 250 million people, you’re going to have groups of 10, 15, hundred, three (hundred) … who, who have totally different views, and that’s the danger and it doesn’t go away. Never has.

HEFFNER: Mr. Gomory, how are other people dealing with this? Other people in other countries?

GOMORY: Well, I think the Israelis, of course, have had to live with conventional terrorism for a long time. As have … did the people in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and to some extent, parts of Britain …

HEFFNER: No, I meant the threat of biological terrorism, which is the one …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … which is the one you say concerns you most.

GOMORY: They’ve done a lot. They … I think is Israel every new construction has to have what they call a “safe room”, which is a room which through one device or another has this sealing quality. They have a wide distribution of masks. They have a lot of drills at the hospitals to actually drill … you know preparations without practice don’t amount to too much.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

GOMORY: They’ve done a lot more.

HEFFNER: And other countries?

GOMORY: I don’t know … England … England started off some months ago with a big bang. And, and they had an ambitious program. I haven’t followed well enough to tell you where it stands.

HEFFNER: What would the first steps be, that you would recommend … here.

GOMORY: I think the first steps here would be for individuals to do the sorts of things that you’ll find on the site. And that includes, you see, having food and water.

Now why food and water? Because there are two ways that you can be hurt by a … let us say a biological type attack. One is that you might be … you might get anthrax in your system. Right. But the second way is that the support system you’re used to and that surrounds us all … like the fact that you can go to the supermarket and get food … or that you have clean water. That could be damaged. People might not show up for work in supermarkets. As a matter of fact, doctors might not show up for work, either, for that matter. And so you might find that you’re on your own in a way that you’re not accustomed to.

So I think that the first … even if you’re not directly damaged. So the first sorts of steps are things like, you know, have a certain number of days supply of food. People have settled on three, it’s an arbitrary number. Clean water. Supplies of whatever medicines you might routinely need. Because many people do need certain medicines on a daily basis.

So, being able to sustain your own normal life on your own. That would be step one. Because even, if you’re in an area where, where normal functioning is stopped, you have to be able to do that. And then … go ahead …

HEFFNER: No, please.

GOMORY: … and then step two are these other things like have a mask and … you know …

HEFFNER: Those are all personal.

GOMORY: That’s at the personal level, yes.

HEFFNER: And they reflect your very wise conclusion that that’s where we have to start. That we can do something …

GOMORY: Yes. If you ask, “what can I do?”, that is this sort of thing. Then I think organizations … you see, one thing I … I think it’s really … the government can’t do it for us because there’s too much to do. Right. The government can’t put a mask in your pocket and it can’t store three days of food in your pantry, or wherever you store food, right?

And similarly the businesses have to take it on themselves to be able to carry on. Very important … especially things like, let us say, electric power. Now having an electric power system that can keep going and you might say, “well, is there, is there an issue with a biological attack?”. That needs to be looked into because, I mean, how long will the electric power system run if no one shows up for work. I’m not sure that’s been looked into. But electric power, gas pipelines, the financial system those need to be able to keep going. And that means they spend money because redundancy is part of the game.

HEFFNER: Is there any city, any community in this country, to your knowledge, that at this point is doing what you say the Israelis have done in terms of building codes?

GOMORY: No.

HEFFNER: The safe room.

GOMORY: No. Not that I’m aware of, no.

HEFFNER: Now I’ll ask the question my kids used to ask and my grandchildren ask … “how come?”.

GOMORY: I don’t think that people have, have … I think in two dimensions … one is, until recently, the government has not asked them to. And therefore people have to reach this conclusion on their own, which is difficult. And secondly, I think that to the extent that people do take this seriously, they take it seriously because of Osama bin Laden and because of the Iraq situation. I don’t think many people realize that this is something we’re stuck with. Because of the technological shift that’s putting this sort of weapon into the hands of any small group of extremists. And so the knowledge that would drive people to take these steps is not there.

HEFFNER: Question, of course, occurs to me …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and has to do with the apple …

GOMORY: The apple?

HEFFNER: Yeah … biting the apple … that fatal step … and you talk about what technology …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … hath wrought …

GOMORY: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: … on that what we’re doing with … what’s happening to us now is that we’re dealing with the results of technology.

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: Has, has that led to any kind of anti-technology feeling that you discern?

GOMORY: Well, I’m not good at discerning mass feelings. But I think people are thinking … it makes people think. I think there have always been groups that have been anti-technology.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m a Luddite …

GOMORY: Yeah. All right. Well there you are. You see …

HEFFNER: By definition.

GOMORY: … an historical trend. And I think that it’s worth thinking about, you know. I think the, the progress is very rapid … which I understand … you know, all sorts of things about the gene … there are possibilities like human cloning … I think we have to think which of these things do we really want?

HEFFNER: Incidentally … not so incidentally, I suppose …

GOMORY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … cloning and genetic manipulation.

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: Do you …

GOMORY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … look forward to the potential for genetic protection?

GOMORY: Well, I think … the way I look at this is all these discoveries put power in the hands of people … can be used very often for good or for evil. Let me … there seem to be a great many medical possibilities … positive … that is to make people diagnose disease earlier or maybe even have treatment for disease. But there’s also the possibility of them changing … anthrax or other diseases … right … to make them resistant to the current vaccine.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

GOMORY: So, whenever you have this rapid expansion of knowledge, you’re creating a power for good and you’re also usually creating, or often you can be creating a power for evil. And it’s, it’s up to us what we do with this damn stuff.

HEFFNER: It’s clear that we’ve got to continue …

GOMORY: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … this kind of dialogue at another time, but our time is up now and …

GOMORY: Well, I’ve enjoyed being with you.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Ralph Gomory, thank you very much.

GOMORY: You’re very welcome.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P.O.Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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