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Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Sarin discovery deserved more than a blasé response


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We felt a little like we'd fallen down a rabbit hole this week on hearing that an artillery shell that tested positive for sarin had been discovered in a roadside bomb in Baghdad. It wasn't the nasty stuff itself that was curious — as Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld intimated, some stray chemical munitions could signify any number of things, or not much at all. The extraordinary part was the tizzy the media and various noteworthies were in to discount it.

It hadn't been but a few hours since the news broke when former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix grabbed a microphone somewhere to huff that the discovery meant nothing. Others briskly offered that the shell was more likely the bounty of a scavenger hunt by yahoos who didn't even know what they had.

Fair enough to be sure: At this point, none of us knows. But even forgetting the potency of one drop of liquid sarin, when did the prospect of the accidental use of loose WMDs become reassuring?

Fingers have been chewed to the quick around the world at this same prospect for years. Anyone old enough to drink has probably watched at least one show fretting over the whereabouts of vast stockpiles from the former Soviet Union. Given that Iraq's history of using sarin gas during the Iran-Iraq war and against the Iraqi Kurds is well-documented (Saddam Hussein listed some 800 tons in his possession at one point), a twinge of concern wouldn't be inappropriate.

Unlike the possibility that Saddam was deceived by desperate scientists into believing that they were having some success with the nukes project when they weren't, sarin isn't all that tough to come by. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrykyo famously cooked up a little batch just for a subway attack back in 1995, killing a dozen with its symptomatic paralyzing of the muscles around the lungs until it smothers its victims. Its ease of use and strength make it a commonly considered possibility for fringe groups with more bloodlust than resources.

Meanwhile, we have little right to feel so casual about it. New York City this week had its first major response drill for a chemical or biological attack in the city's subway system. Walking into a basketball arena or a graduation ceremony in New York these days may feel like a trip to Fort Knox.

And we agonize over the thoroughness of security screeners at our airports. But as the train bombing in Madrid made abundantly clear, public transportation and other places where nerve gases could percolate are almost totally accessible to terrorists.

It's worth the time to measure those convening realities against the blasé attitude that greeted the re-emergence of a notorious nerve gas. Blix was habitually sanguine. After all, he told the BBC recently, "I think we still overestimate the danger of terror. There are other things that are of equal, if not greater, magnitude, like the environmental global risks."

As happy as it would be to assume Blix just has his head in the ozone, he also has an interest of his own down on Earth. Having carved his name in the history books as a Euroskeptic of the stockpiles manifesto for invading Iraq, acknowledging a possible overstatement is professionally inconvenient. A similar force is at work underplaying the recent reports of the Iraq Survey Group that it had found facilities capable of manufacturing the relevant chemical compounds and improbably large inventories of the necessary precursor ingredients.

The brass-tacks danger here is significant: The desire of Democrats to tag President Bush's re-election with going to war based on phantom weapons encourages us to ignore or minimize what we do find.

A few weeks back, Democrats raised their hackles about a Bush campaign ad that incorporated scenes from Sept. 11, 2001. Figuring out the Bush campaign's motive is no gee-whiz: Those images remain powerful enough to call us back from creeping apathy even today. Remembering the nature of what we're fighting doesn't leave adequate room for the "subtlety" that John Kerry is claiming to offer in his did-I-or-didn't-I positions on issues related to war and terrorism.

Like it or not, this country made a democratic political decision to seek to steal a march on Islamic terrorism by overthrowing Saddam and using Iraq to prod the Middle East toward reform and the greater stability that comes from democracy and economic development.

Sure, every tiddlywink of Iraq news these days will be absorbed into the political machinery of an election campaign in overdrive.

But like the memo informing the Bush administration that Osama bin Laden was maybe possibly thinking about using planes to ill effect, the discovery of a potential weapon of mass terror in Iraq is a warning we could regret missing in hindsight.

It's also a reminder of why we chose this battle in the first place.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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