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Fouling Out

One way to fight City Hall

See the girl on the TV dressed in a bikini.

She doesn‘t think so but she’s dressed for the H-bomb.

--Gang of Four, “I Found That Essence Rare”

Last Sunday morning, on the stage of the grand ball-room at UCLA‘s Ackerman Hall, Matt Petersen, after admitting he’s no Lakers fan, asked the audience to imagine its team makes the finals and will play the first game Wednesday night. That much of his prediction has already come to pass. “Staples Center is filled with 19,000 rabid Lakers fans,” he went on. In the middle of the game, “Fans begin shuddering and experiencing tremors. They experience tunnel vision.” These are not just the usual organized-sports-induced ecstasies -- in Petersen‘s scenario unnamed terrorists have smuggled shells filled with sarin gas into the arena and detonated them next to the air-conditioning intake vents. This is, after all, the Public Health Summit on Weapons of Mass Destruction, organized by Jonathan Parfrey’s Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles (PSR). Petersen, the president of Global Green USA, is here to help us imagine a chemical weapons attack on L.A. “Potentially dozens could die, hundreds could die, thousands could die if it was dispersed perfectly,” he says. Even if the sarin itself were only minimally lethal, many more would likely be trampled to death or fall casualty to the inevitable parking-lot road-rage panic.

And that‘s only a chemical attack. Before the day is done, speakers explored the contours of nuclear, biological and radiological assaults on the city. The nuclear attack is a doozy. The patrician Herbert L. Abrams, of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, takes the stage and calmly imagines that a relatively small and crude 12.5 megaton nuclear weapon is stolen from the fledgling Pakistani arsenal by agents sympathetic to al Qaeda and shipped from Karachi to L.A. to be detonated at City Hall at lunchtime. What happens?

“Well,” Abrams says, “there‘s a blast and shock, thermal radiation, the initial nuclear radiation, and the residual nuclear radiation.” The thermal wave immediately following the blast blinds anyone looking in its direction, following which “the heat flash, traveling at the speed of light, vaporizes everything at a certain distance, it melts everything at a greater distance,” and causes fires to ignite still further afield. The blast wave “levels reinforced concrete buildings” and “reduces homes to debris.” An electronic pulse shorts out all “communications, electronic and power systems within about 10 miles.” In a “red zone” stretching from around the Harbor Freeway to the river, and from Cesar Chavez to about Sixth Street, nearly 120,000 people are instantly killed. Another 100,000 will eventually die from radioactive fallout, though exactly who they are will depend on the wind. Those deaths will be slower. Symptoms, Abrams says, will include severe burns, “nausea, vomiting and diarrhea within 24 hours; drowning from fluid in the lungs; burning of the lungs themselves; skin lesions; cardiovascular and neurological death within hours or days; GI death within days or weeks; and a marrow death, far more prolonged, within a number or weeks.” Secession, in the end, could be the least of our worries.

The conference, though, was not about the usual fear mongering, but about trying to find solutions, from shoring up our public health system to eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. If Donald Rumsfeld, relishing a little mongering last month, assured us that terrorists will inevitably get their hands on such weapons and won’t hesitate to use them, he wasn‘t willing to suggest, as the symposium’s participants were, that the problem might be the very existence of those weapons. The U.S. has vast stockpiles of chemical weapons and more strategic nuclear warheads than the rest of the world combined, pointed out Merav Datan, director of PSR‘s United Nation’s office, yet the U.S. is pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty this week, scuttling the START II and START III treaties, and has failed to ratify or is in flagrant violation of several key international weapons-reduction agreements. “We can‘t simply protect ourselves without cooperating with other states and trying to address the origins of the threat,” Datan said.

PSR’s suggestions for “what you can do,” however, fail to address the gnawing sense of helplessness the headlines inspire these days. On the theme of “Defending Our Lives by Democratic Action,” they mainly involve writing to your elected officials. So you might not want to throw out that lead-lined tracksuit just yet, or the gas mask and Cipro supply. Or of course you could try to quit your fretting and learn to love the bomb. And the anthrax. And the sarin. And the nerve gas and smallpox, too.