Community at Risk
Biodefense and the Collective Search for Security
Thomas D. Beamish




Beginning on September 18, 2001, five letters containing anthrax arrived at the headquarters of ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer. Postmarked exactly one week after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, those five letters were soon followed by others. In the end, 28 persons tested positive for exposure, 17 developed infections, and 5 died from inhaling anthrax in what would become the most fearsome act of bioterrorism in U.S. history (Daschle 2006; Kaiser 2011).

Yet, loss of life and physical injury may not have been the most indelible legacies of the anthrax attacks. Nearly a decade after the attacks, the FBI and other federal agencies still had not positively identified those responsible. Who did it, and why? Did the attacks represent an “outside” act of bioterrorism, or were they an “inside” job?1 And what can the federal government do to prevent future attacks? Even after the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded in 2010 that they had been the work of a domestic scientist working at Fort Detrick, Maryland, many scientists and experts were unconvinced and insisted that America was still vulnerable (Broad and Shane 2011; Shane 2008, 2010a, 2010b). Because the attacks remained unsolved for so long, controversy haunted efforts to improve the nation’s biodefense systems.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of a culprit or connection to the events of September 11, in 2003, President George W. Bush would publicly conflate the two events based on temporal association. Invoking a “moral panic” (Cohen 1972; Goode and Ben-Yahuda 1994)2 regarding the threat posed by foreign terrorists, Bush declared that “men who would seize planes filled with innocent people and crash them into buildings would not hesitate to use biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons” to achieve their aims (Bush 2003; Knobler, Mahmoud, and Pray 2002; National Research Council 2003; White House 2003). The implication was that the “risks” exposed by the September 11 and anthrax attacks represented “outside” interests determined to destroy America, as opposed to an “inside” risk posed by domestic security efforts and those associated with them.

Paralleling Bush’s claims, key federal agencies whose agendas included protecting against biological threats were now prioritized for funding and began to plan in earnest for the nation’s “biosecurity.”3 “Biodefense for the 21st Century” was a three-pronged risk management project that called for enhancing advanced biomedical applications’ development and testing, distributing countermeasures and vaccines, and creating a network of research institutions and ultrasecure National Biocontainment Laboratories (NBLs) (Mair, Maldin, and Smith 2006; NIAID 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). The overarching idea of the push was to shore up domestic protections and national preparedness through the development of a research/response network that could react quickly and efficiently to acts of bioterrorism. The federal government would spend some $14.5 billion between 2001 and 2004 alone to address the nation’s perceived vulnerability to biothreats (Schuller 2004) and some $78.3 billion by 2012 (Franco and Sell 2012).

One of the primary agencies involved in the new risk management plan was the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), whose annual budget increased by some $1.5 billion from 2002 to 2003 (Altman et al. 2005; Fauci and Zerhouni 2005; NIAID 2005). According to the NIAID, the priority placed on biodefense reflected a new model for the development of medical countermeasures to address the threat of bioterrorist attack. The old model was one in which vaccines were developed and given prophylactically to the armed forces to protect against pathogenic agents, stockpiles of which would also serve to preemptively vaccinate the general population in the event of an attack. In light of the attacks in 2001, national security elites deemed it insufficient to protect against the release of pathogens with catastrophic potential, known as Category A agents, all of which are easily disseminated, associated with high mortality rates, and able to inspire public panic and social disruption. Of course, if diseases such as these were to be “weaponized” and dispersed through an act of bioterrorism or war, the outcome would be disastrous. They therefore required special public health preparedness (NIAID 2011).

The precedence given to biodefense research focused on “bioweapons agents” increased so dramatically that it stirred controversy among experts in related fields of study. For instance, 700 microbiologists protested the newfound prioritization with an open letter to the NIH, claiming that the focus on bioweapons agents represented “a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research” (Altman et al. 2005). In response, NIAID director Anthony Fauci justified this increase by underscoring the threat presented by biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins. He noted how the “recent deliberate exposure of the civilian population of the United States to Bacillus anthracis spores [had] revealed a gap in the nation’s preparedness against bioterrorism,” and stressed the need for an “accelerated research and development agenda . . . aimed at protection of the world population against future attacks” (Fauci and Zerhouni 2005; NIAID 2002a, p. 1).

And while the conflict over biodefense plans initially played out among security officials and public health experts in professional venues and journals, by 2003 it had spread to the public as well. In some communities where the federal government wanted to build NBLs for research on bioweapons agents and extreme pathogens, the residents actively engaged in civic debates regarding those plans and what they meant locally.

Community at Risk focuses on three such locales where biodefense plans sparked local dialogue and debate. I investigated and compared civic responses to local university proposals to host NBLs in Roxbury, Massachusetts; Davis, California; and Galveston, Texas. I chose these three communities as cases for comparison for a number of reasons. In brief, on October 15, 2002, the NIAID requested formal proposals from interested research universities and public health institutions to construct, house, and manage an NBL on the federal government’s behalf. The research institutions that applied included Boston University Medical Center, Oregon Health and Science University, New York State Department of Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Maryland School of Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and University of California–Davis.

After hearing a national radio broadcast (circa June 2003) about organized resistance to the University of California–Davis’s biodefense plans, I focused my initial efforts there. Soon thereafter, I collected and analyzed media coverage from all seven locales to gain a comparative impression of public response. Analyzing a community’s reaction through the prism of news media coverage does not, of course, provide a definitive account of local sentiment. Nonetheless, my findings were revealing. In the seven locales, the number of articles in the local newspaper about the construction of NBLs during the year preceding NIAID’s awarding a federal grant included Boston Globe, 21; Portland Oregonian, 20; Albany Times Union, 5; Chicago Tribune, 2; Baltimore Sun, 3; Galveston Daily Democrat, 25; and Davis Enterprise, 237. Obviously, Davis stood out for the sheer volume of articles, editorial columns, and op-eds published locally, the vast majority of which conveyed opposition to the university’s biodefense ambitions for violating local priorities, beliefs, and values. Based on these findings, I initially focused my research on Davis.

On September 30, 2003, Tommy Thompson, then secretary of health and human services, announced that the future NBL sites would be at Boston University Medical Campus in Roxbury, Massachusetts (BUMC), and at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB). For the University of California–Davis (UCD), the announcement represented defeat. In the year leading up to the secretary’s announcement, several groups and individuals had mobilized against UCD’s biodefense ambitions in a manner that far exceeded the other locales in its organization and intensity. This made it an important case insofar as it was initially alone in its vocal and public dispute.

Given that they were awarded funds to both build and manage an NBL as well as federal designations as Regional Centers of Excellence, which meant they would receive millions in federal money to promote research in the new biolab on extreme diseases, I chose Roxbury and Galveston for comparison with the Davis case. Within a year of BUMC’s award, it would confront a growing coalition of groups and individuals who opposed an NBL in Boston, which were initially organized by neighborhood residents of Roxbury and centered on claims of environmental racism and injustice. In Galveston, no movement against UTMB’s biodefense plans would materialize. Those who engaged the issue there would embrace UTMB’s efforts and the local NBL as a sign of progress. As I suggest in the Appendix, where I share the details of my research strategy, the three regions made excellent comparative cases for other reasons as well, including their demographic profiles, their diverse geographic locations, and their distinctive cultural orientations, all of which were reflected in how local citizens responded to biodefense plans.

I subsequently undertook five years of intensive field research in each community, during which I conducted 100 in-depth interviews and 135 semistructured telephone surveys,4 had numerous informal conversations and email correspondences, attended public forums and community events, analyzed local news media coverage, and collected and analyzed archival materials, including environmental impact reports, city documents, civic group documents, and white papers.5 My specific focus was reconstruction and analysis of the public dialogue and debate that ensued over the biodefense issue in each locale as it unfolded.

My interest in a comparative study of this kind was in exploring why and how each community responded in the way that it did to the kind of technological initiative and risk management plan represented by federal biodefense efforts. I investigated the different public claims and arguments made for and against the establishment of an NBL in each community. My overriding purpose was to highlight the role that the civic politics native to any given community play in shaping one of the most pernicious bases for public dispute in contemporary America: risk and efforts to manage it. The three cases provided an unusual opportunity for such a comparison because each one responded differently to identical risk management plans. They also provided an excellent cross section of community life in America, based on demographic profiles and locations (see Table I.1).

My use of a comparative framework to study the response of these communities to biodefense plans was also motivated by both practical and theoretical considerations. The comparative approach provided a basis for theoretical development in a way that single case exploration could not. I conducted the research in three communities engaged in intense dialogue over the same national issue, at a historical moment when uncertainty over the nation’s security peaked (circa 2001–2009). Field studies that provide this kind of comparative leverage are rare; the circumstances were akin to a naturally occurring experiment wherein the stimulus—the national context and biodefense as a risk management plan—was held constant, while local response varied widely. In essence, my search was for what explained this range of responses.

TABLE I.1   Community cases for comparison, 2010

Note: The U.S. Census lists as “Hispanic or Latino (of any race)” and therefore totals can be more than 100%. “Other” includes Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, Alaskan Native, some other race, and two or more races.

My findings also hold practical implications. Comparative studies such as this can furnish useful information to policy makers and a public seeking security. These and related questions go to the heart of tensions between democratic institutions and civic expectations, as well as the technocratic and even authoritarian tendencies associated with ever-increasing risk and its management. In short, my study sheds light on a phenomenon that defines our age: the politics of risk.


1. Mainstream press accounts of the anthrax attacks conveyed the debate regarding responsibility as between those who believed that they originated outside the country and those who believed them to originate domestically. None of the 60 to 80 threat reports gathered daily by U.S. intelligence agencies at the time could connect the envelopes containing anthrax spores to al Qaeda or other known terrorist groups. For example, in a lead Washington Post story regarding the anthrax attacks at the time, one senior official said, “Everything seems to lean toward a domestic source. . . . Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist-type operation” (Woodward and Eggen 2001). Yet, these comments contrast with those made by a UN weapons inspector who was quoted in a lead Associated Press article as saying, “The FBI’s profile of the anthrax killer as a deranged loner was refuted in December of 2001 as ‘a lot of hokum.’” The quoted expert, Dr. Richard Spertzel former head of the United Nations weapons inspection program in Iraq, added that the quality of anthrax sent in the attacks “is not the kind of thing you mess around with in a university lab. . . . The tainted letters were likely the result of terrorism sponsored by a foreign government” (Associated Press 2001).

2. As defined by Cohen (1972), a moral panic occurs when a person, group, or set of conditions arises that are perceived to threaten societal interests and/or values and those values are used to promote societal disquiet by an individual or group. Such individuals and groups who seek to promote moral panic are labeled by Cohen to be “moral entrepreneurs.” Those that are held to threaten the social order he refers to as “folk devils.”

3. Agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) via its National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) via its Foreign Disease Weed Science Research Unit, and the Department of Defense (DoD) via the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) are some of the primaries, but this does not exhaust the list of affected agencies and their affiliates that would help develop and pursue an aggressive, multipronged, risk-management plan that would focus on the nation’s biodefenses.

4. The telephone survey interviews involved both closed- and open-ended questions, as well as the opportunity for an informant to discuss whatever he or she considered relevant. My informants frequently took advantage of this opportunity. I analyzed these open-ended responses as I did the in-depth interviews using qualitative software, Atlas, to discern and track patterns across my interviews and informants. The closed-ended questions were statistically analyzed using frequency distributions and correlations because this was not a probability sample but rather a purposively selected one.

5. While I would have preferred personal interviews with all parties involved in each community’s civic dialogue regarding the prospective NBL and biodefense plans, I could not obtain direct access to many university administrators from either BUMC or UCD. Therefore, at times I had to determine university administrator views from archival sources such as published editorial newspaper columns, media interviews, and question-and-answer sessions at public forums. For instance, I collected 30 complete transcriptions from such public forums with trustees—federal, state, and university administrators involved in biodefense plans and the proposal to site and manage an NBL locally. I handled these and related interview- and comment-based archival materials the same way I did my personal interviews with community members and civic leaders, analyzing administrator claims and justifications for their content. The archival data I gathered also included extensive video footage of City Council meetings and public testimony from Boston and Davis that focused on the biodefense issue; select protest events from Boston and Davis; a comprehensive collection of op-ed/letters to the editor and general newspaper coverage of the biodefense issue for each location (circa 2002–2008); and the comments section of the federal environmental impact statements (FEIS) for Boston University Medical Campus’s federally funded National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (NEIDL) and University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston National Laboratory (GNL). I also collected printed materials and flyers, attended public meetings or acquired tapes/transcripts when possible, listened to expert commentary, and followed the larger debate concerning U.S. biodefense policy and plans in the national news and more specialized presses. See the Appendix for greater detail on these and related methodological issues.