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Last Updated

27 Feb 2003

Source: New York Times, February 25, 2003


Terror's Dual Threats of Bombs and Biology


Rest semiassured: guards near New York City tunnels have stopped cars with cancer patients inside; remnant radiation from their tumor-fighting therapies tripped sensors. Also, the city's existing air-quality monitors have already been retrofitted to sniff out bioterror attacks, and so far so good.

That, however, is the extent of relief available in two unsettling hours about the airborne evils that Americans have been told to await. Two separate shows, "Dirty Bomb," tonight on the PBS series "Nova," and the Discovery Channel's "Bioterror: The Invisible Enemy" tomorrow, for the most part offer dreadful insights and fodder for fear.

Each program looks at information that often flits by on television in shorter, incomplete packages. Unfortunately, the hourlong shows wind up in macabre competition, arguing which is the most lethal and immediate agent of doom. Gird yourself against deadly radiation, spread by a cesium core within a detonated explosive, or run for your life from microbes like anthrax or "hemorrhagic fevers" like Ebola virus. Some choice.

There's good science in both shows and based on that standard "Dirty Bomb" scores (and scares) big. The episode employs technically undaunted minds to explain that some radioactive elements cesium 137, strontium 90 are unstable, sending out electrons that upset the nuclear balance within the molecule. Those electrons might arrive with enough force to send molecules inside the human body into ionized disarray. And one bad cell can replicate wildly, turning into tumors.

Got it? If not, then you see why good science can make for less-than-good television. We get lessons that break the problem down into its invisible essence when what we really want to know is where to buy a lead-lined suit and which days to wear it. "Dirty Bomb" explains all but that with enthusiastic determination.

Its format eschews the graphics that clutter up screens, focusing instead on experts filmed grainily at odd angles. It presents artsy re-enactments and close-ups of wriggling, irregular cells. It shows old clips of little-known nuclear crises overseas. (A stray canister of strontium found in the snowy Caucasus Mountains gets stored safely by hardy souls who worked in 45-second shifts to reduce exposure.) It leavens the weighty topic with visual originality.

"Bioterror: The Invisible Enemy" has as its host Tom Brokaw, the NBC News anchor, who has himself been bioterrorized. In late 2001 his assistant (case 2) opened a package addressed to him, and her subsequent lesion was thought to be anything but what it was: cutaneous anthrax. He relives this nightmare with another target, Judith Miller, who has covered bioterrorism for The New York Times and is co-author of "Germs." Her expertise earned her an anxious readership and an unwelcome suspicious package.

Mr. Brokaw was told by the F.B.I. that his workplace was safe when in fact it needed serious quarantining. Ms. Miller still does not know who sent her a letter containing strange powder or what that powder actually was. She does know that it was harmless and that if it had been anthrax she would have been in trouble. "There would not have been enough Cipro in the world to cure her," as Mr. Brokaw puts it. Reality check: Because of a shortage? Because of her mode of exposure? Are we talking cutaneous or pulmonary?

The producers play and replay this sound bite from Ms. Miller: "If you hate the United States, if you want mass destruction on the cheap, if you want to be able to do this without being caught, forget about nuclear, go bio." Clearly she means this not as an advisory for evildoers but as a means to build awareness and queasiness.

The Discovery Channel special, co-produced with NBC News, relies on the standard "Dateline" formula. It recaps recent history with film clips and eerie background music. It mentions the possibility of death at every opportunity. And its scripted narration sounds too much like newsmagazine warnings that viewers have already heard about the hidden dangers of minivans and cheeseburgers.

Still, watching either show imbues some sense of confidence about how to handle any attack. On Discovery, "Bioterror" makes the useful point that panic is the most dangerous contagion. On Nova, a nuclear safety expert named Charles Ferguson covers similar ground when he says, "You'd probably have more deaths due to traffic accidents than from ionizing radiation."

Safety cannot be found in numbers, as radioactive ash and biological agents can travel in or on humans. It might help to learn that smallpox vaccinations are now ready for all Americans whose bodies can handle them. (No doses for infants, pregnant women, immune-compromised patients and those with certain skin ailments.) Radiation can be cleaned up, but buildings might have to come down, and neighborhoods could be closed indefinitely.

Each program encourages cooperation before a big event rattles victims, clouds logic and spreads antagonism. "There's no question that some day we're going to get hit," Tommy G. Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary, says on "Bioterror." When and how are not known, but absorbing all this data could work like a vaccine: a version of the calamity itself enters the imagination and helps make viewers more prepared for the mental challenges of survival.


Dirty Bomb

On most PBS stations tonight (check local listings) Paula S. Apsell, executive producer; Kirk Wolfinger and Matthew Collins, producers for NOVA; Kim Shillinglaw, producer for the BBC. A BBC/WGBH, Boston co-production.


The Invisible Enemy

Discovery Channel, tomorrow at 10 p.m., Eastern and Pacific times; 9 p.m., Central time Carol Williams, executive producer; Knute Walker, senior producer; for the Discovery Channel, Stephen Reverand, executive producer, and Clark Bunting, executive in charge of production; Tom Brokaw, host. A Discovery Channel co-production with NBC News.

Ned Martel writes about television for The Financial Times.