Chemical & Engineering News,
July 24, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

Technology and Terrorism

Madeleine Jacobs, Editor

In the past few years, chemistry has captured headlines in ways that undoubtedly have made many chemists cringe.

A 26-year-old man educated as a chemical engineer at Rutgers University with a promising industrial career is indicted and tried for complicity in New York City's World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Chemists and other scientists - apparently lured by the availability of funds as members of the Shinri Kyo cult to pursue their own research - are implicated in the deadly March 20 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. A 35-year-old California biochemist who once worked in molecular biology at a prestigious research hospital center is arrested in conjunction with the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 167 lives.

The linkage of chemistry and terrorism is an uncomfortable bond for members of the chemical profession. One can write off these particular individuals as fanatics or extremists. One can say they represent a tiny fraction of a fraction of the population of chemists. Chemists, after all, are merely a microcosm of society at large. But the sad fact remains that the store of knowledge that chemists and scientists in general possess gives them the potential not only for creating great societal good but also for wreaking unspeakable evil.

Fortunately, scientific and technological strides - with underpinning from many fields of chemistry - are being made in combating terrorism. Indeed, as Associate Editor A. Maureen Rouhi points out in this week's News Focus (page 10), technology has been a major tool in developing the government's arsenal to combat terrorism. The economic price of developing and using these tools is high. But, as Rouhi writes, "more difficult to quantify is the cost to an open society of intrusions on individual privacy and curtailment of people's movements. Policymakers must sort out whether the benefits of preventive technology justify the economic and social costs."

It is hard to imagine that any of the survivors or families of the people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing believe these costs are too high. One can only hope these tools arrive swiftly and with appropriate safeguards for individual freedom to help end the senseless, tragic, and terrifying acts of terrorism all too common in the world today.

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