Coronavirus and History, Russia and Italy, the War for Reality, and the Nexus of It All

Excerpt 5 of 5, adapted to stand alone, from a May 26, 2020 SPECIAL REPORT on coronavirus

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981)

We will never find an explanation…for the evils done by people against other people, or for the love that drove the doctors to bring smallpox to an end.  Yet after all they had done, we still held smallpox in our hands, with a grip of death that would never let it go.  All I knew was that the dream of total eradication had failed.  The virus’s last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power.  We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart.

—Richard Preston (author of The Hot Zone), The Demon in the Freezer (2002)

Eradication

It was one of the most inspiring moments of the entire Cold War.

In what has been acknowledged by many to be “the single most important triumph of public health in human history,” on December 9, 1979, the WHO certified smallpox eradicated from nature, and, to much fanfare at the May, 1980 session of the World Health Assembly (the WHO’s governing body) formally celebrated this achievement publicly with a unified declaration acknowledging the singular triumph.  The disease—terrorizing humanity for thousands of years and responsible for more deaths than any single other disease—may have wiped 300-500 million people in the twentieth century alone, but now, no more.

This triumph was the culmination of two decades of effort from the global healthcare community led by the WHO, first with an effort inspired and proposed by a top Soviet scientist in 1959 that fell far short, with many very skeptical that any disease could be “eradicated,” so support for the efforts was lukewarm and halfhearted.  Still, the effort did drastically reduce infection and mortality of the disease.  Some did not give up on the dream of total eradication , though.  A second effort picked up where the first faltered, with the Intensified Smallpox Eradication Program beginning in 1967, a year in which some two million died from the disease out of 10-15 million cases (rapid vaccination saved many infected before symptoms worsened, reducing the death rate, and these figures were down from some 50 million cases annually in the 1950s).

For the next decade, doctors and medical staff scoured the globe—braving even natural disasters and civil wars—to find all cases of smallpox and then ring-vaccinate everyone around the cases, much like cutting down trees in a forest on fire to stop the spread of the fire.  The technique worked extremely well, and the last recorded case of naturally-occurring smallpox in world history was in 1977 in Somalia.  The following year, another person died because of a mishap at a university lab that was studying smallpox.  Efforts were kept up to keep the virus from making a comeback, and they were successful: by the end of 1979, the virus was certified to be extinct from nature—the first and last disease thus far to suffer that fate—and there has not been a known case since.

In the words of Richard Preston (author of the famous 1990s bestselling seminal book The Hot Zone that awoke the national consciousness of America to the threat of emerging infectious diseases), those carrying out the campaign

had forged themselves into an army of peace.  With a weapon in their hands, a needle with two points, they had searched the corners of the earth for the virus, opening every door and lifting every scrap of cloth.  They would not rest, they would not stand aside, and they gave all they had until variola [i.e., smallpox] was gone.  No greater deed was ever done in medicine, and no better thing ever came from the human spirit.

At the height of the Cold War, the two rivals tearing the world apart—the United States and the Soviet Union—came together to lead one of the great services for humanity that history has ever known.  Two bitter foes that were constantly threatening each other with nuclear annihilation proved that, even amid the greatest of disputes and tensions, enemies could still work together to make the word a better place, to save lives and put their common interest and those of humanity as a whole ahead of their differences.  There are few examples in history of anything like this, and nothing that matches the amount of lives saved by this common effort during a global geopolitical conflict between the two lead actors.

Eventually , smallpox would only be only officially preserved in two facilities: America’s CDC in Atlanta and Russia’s Vector Institute (the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR that was a major facility of the Soviet biowarfare program known, as I have discussed elsewhere, as Biopreparat) in Koltsovo, Russia, the top  government disease research facilities in America and Russia, respectively.

By the time Preston would write his 2002 book on smallpox, The Demon in the Freezer, the then-top scientist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USARMRIID, at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the U.S. earlier had located a big chunk of its now-defunct biowarfare program), Dr. Peter Jahrling (played by Topher Grace in last year’s NetGeo miniseries, The Hot Zone, based on Preston’s book), would frequently quip:  “If you believe smallpox is sitting in only two freezers, I have a bridge for you to buy. The genie is out of the lamp.” 

Weaponization

As I pointed out in my earlier-referenced related piece, since the Eradication and at the end of the Cold War, because of high-level defectors from Biopreparat, the world learned that the Soviet Union even at the height of the Eradication has a massive biowarfare program that included smallpox, and the Soviets were not the only ones pursuing bioweapons and smallpox stocks, also as discussed earlier.  Additionally, it became clear that the Soviets were working with smallpox outside the designated Vector Institute.

At the same time, with the increasing concerns about global warming in the 1990s, we get into the possibility of smallpox in the bodies of long-dead victims frozen in the now melting tundra permafrost, smallpox that could be unleashed and infect yet again from nature.

But the main concern is not the tundra smallpox.

Now we see how the Soviets got their lamp and genie.

We learned from the highest-level Biopreparat defector (Col. Kanatjan Alibekov, now “Ken Alibek”) that when there were raging epidemics of smallpox in India during the Eradication in the 1960s, the Soviets had a medical team operating there in 1967, helping to push back the spread of the disease there.  That team was accompanied by agents of the K.G.B., the Soviets’ notorious intelligence and security service.  They were on a mission to find a particularly nasty strain of smallpox, which they did in 1967, bringing the super-sub-strain—known as India-1 or India-1967—back to the Soviet Union with them.  This sub-strain was a far more virulent and stable sub-strain than other strains of variola major (already the far deadlier of two main smallpox strains, the weaker one being variola minor) and one that has a far shorter incubation period and was harder to diagnose, making it ideal for bioweapons relative to existing variola major stockpiles the Soviets had at the time.  Within a few years, India-1 was their flagship strain for smallpox bioweapons, with twenty tons of it being produced every year to keep it as fresh and deadly as possible. 

The K.G.B has used the well-intentioned Eradication program as a cover to find the raw materials for a nightmare bioweapon, and it succeeded in keeping this secret from the West for two decades, during which it carried out intense research, development, and testing with the sub-strain.

We should still be thankful for the visionaries and dedicated health professionals from the Soviet Union who helped make Eradication a reality, and for the Soviet Government’s generous donations of enormous amounts of smallpox vaccine to fuel the effort.  The sincerity of these health workers should not be questioned. 

However, as is so often in the world, even where there are good actors and motives, there can be bad ones right alongside them, and this was the case with the Soviet Eradication effort.  As Preston notes:

We will never find an explanation…for the evils done by people against other people, or for the love that drove the doctors to bring smallpox to an end.  Yet after all they had done, we still held smallpox in our hands, with a grip of death that would never let it go.  All I knew was that the dream of total eradication had failed.  The virus’s last strategy for survival was to bewitch its host and become a source of power.  We could eradicate smallpox from nature, but we could not uproot the virus from the human heart.

2020: A Year of Threat Convergences

If we jump forward to Italy now during its terrible coronavirus outbreak, we may be seeing a repeat of history.

As noted earlier, Italy was requesting U.S. assistance from our troops stationed there since World War II because we had not been proactive in offering help to our beleaguered NATO ally.  But President Vladimir Putin of Russia beat us to the punch, embarrassingly preempting significant U.S. military aid by nearly a month and one-upping us in a public relations nightmare by sending a military medical aid convoy to Italy, to much Russian fanfare and broadcast constantly with gusto by Russian media to the rest of the world.  The mission was dubbed “From Russia with Love” (sharing a title with one of the most famous James Bond films and novels) with that phrase written in Italian on a graphic of two hearts—one colored in the colors Russia’s flag, one in Italy’s—placed on the Russian military vehicles delivering the aid.  “From Russia with Love” was also, tellingly, written on the graphic in English above the Italian even though the aid was being delivered to Italy.  In the wider context of the geopolitical tug-of-war for Europe between Russia and the U.S., Russia scored another win, again beating the U.S. in a form of unconventional, asymmetric warfare.

Russian Defence Ministry

But not all was as advertised.

The highly respected Italian daily La Stampa—one of Italy’s oldest newspapers—did some digging, and found that, according to anonymous Italian government officials, the aid Russia sent was not particularly helpful and the whole effort was more about public-relations and an effort to undermine NATO, with one official saying that “Eighty percent of Russian supplies are totally useless or of little use to Italy” and two Italian military officials echoing that sentiment. 

Unsurprisingly, the Russian Defence Ministry directly attacked and seemed to threaten La Stampa and the journalist behind the story, Jacopo Iacoboni, calling his story “fake news,” making sure to post the smear in English.  Even in this delicate situation, the Italian Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministries, while thanking Russia for its aid, condemned the Russian Defence Ministry’s attacks on the Italian free press.  The mission is now winding down, seemingly not having been very effective.

The disinformational, propagandistic aspects of the whole operation only became more evident when Italy revealed that it had received only 150 ventilators from Russia (not the 600 the Russian Ambassador to Italy claimed) and mysterious WhatsApp groups surfaced offering 200 euros to Italians to make and post videos praising the Russian “aid” effort on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (less but still some money for posts with just text).

Along with the aid, Russia sent over 120 of its top officers from one of Russia’s main Radiological, Chemical and Biological Weapons Defense (RChBD) military units.  If one buys Russia’s stated aim for this outing, it is somewhat strange that it sent biowarfare specialists to Italy, which is supposed to have some of the best personnel, equipment, and expertise in when it comes to nuclear, biological, and chemical unit capacities.  The unit is also suspiciously being led in Gen. Sergey Kikot, the number-two commander of all of Russia’s RChBD forces.

Gen. Kikot is perhaps most famous internationally for being one of Russia’s most prominent disinformationists and apologists for Assad’s regime as part of Russia’s overall Syria disinformation operations and support for Assad, with Kikot issuing strong denials that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and that the White Helmets—the brave Syrian civilian volunteers who try to save other civilians in the immediate aftermath of Syrian regime and Russian military attacks—were staging fake footage of such attacks, absurd statements which have gone against the findings of NATO allies, experts, human rights groups, and watchdogs, including the United Nations-associated Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the chief international chemical weapons inspections authority.

It would be unthinkable in this kind of a situation for there not to be intelligence officers from Russia’s military intelligence branch, the G.R.U., embedded within Russia’s unit in Italy.  In this case, being deployed in a NATO country during a pandemic is an invaluable opportunity for intelligence collection and even for intelligence operations. 

But it is also worth noting that the G.R.U. is often the tip of Putin’s spear in both the Kremlin’s conventional and unconventional operations.  The G.R.U. has been active on the ground in Russia’s invasion, occupation, and illegal annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in Eastern Ukraine.  It also has had its commandos—Russia’s elite Spetsnaz special forces—play important roles on the battlefield in Syria, including in Aleppo and Palmyra; it was even overseeing the Russian mercenaries who attacked a joint U.S.-S.D.F. position in Syria in February, 2018.  Furthermore, the G.R.U. has been one of Putin’s point organizations in his war on Western democracy, engaging in cyberwarfare, destabilization, and disinformation efforts against NATO countries in Europe and other U.S. allies, in addition to its infamous efforts against the U.S. during the 2016 election (what I have called the First Russo-American Cyberwar). 

But when thinking about why elite Russian biowarfare specialists and G.R.U. intelligence operatives would be in Italy, we should perhaps think less about 2016 and more about 1967, when the K.G.B. accompanied medical teams to India during the Smallpox Eradication Program.

The G.R.U. is one of the successor agencies to the K.G.B.

It is uncertain what all the precise activity the Russian biowarfare units and any G.R.U. operatives in Italy have been up to, but this scenario seems awfully familiar.  Whatever their purpose, this whole episode should serve as a reminder of the ability of the Russians to see unconventional opportunities in all situations, including public health crises, and to reinforce how unprepared we are in general to stand up to such efforts.  Years from now, we hopefully will not be caught off guard if we discover the Russians have engineered some sort of supercoronavirus, nor, on a far simpler level, allow Russia or another rival to upstage our efforts to assist our allies and friends abroad during a pandemic.

We also must hope that we are better prepared here at home in a far deeper sense than adding to and reorganizing our federal government’s organizational chart.  My soon-to-be-released proposal for a cabinet-level Department of Pandemic Preparedness and Response would be a major leap forward in a big-picture national policy sense, but there is so much more that needs to be done throughout our society.  For it was not just our government that failed us, but different aspects of our media, our business sector, our religious institutions across faiths, celebrities and various other elites, plenty of rank-and-file Americans along with them, our very culture itself.  And it is the societal failings that are embedded deep in our society that have not only been major factors in making our response to COVID-19 so shockingly poor, but have also have contributed significantly to many of our failures in unconventional, asymmetric warfare over decades.  It is those societal failings that were so brilliantly exploited by Russia in 2016, too, but Russia has also used our weaknesses to help amplify and perpetuate our failing coronavirus response, finding plenty of existing conspiracy theories, mistrust, and hate in America to amplify and plenty of Americans willing to believe and peddle Russia’s own false narratives, whether in 2016 or today in our current coronavirus climate.

In other words, at each step of the way, millions of Americans were gleefully along for the ride, the very definitions of useful idiots, taking Russia’s disinformation and making it their misinformation.  That is happening even now, in our 2020 election.

Putin is himself former K.G.B., and part of his genius is that he and his intelligence-crowd’s longstanding K.G.B.-inspired techniques accurately assessed our domestic weaknesses, figuring out how to magnify many of them with their own operations in a variety of settings, from elections to pandemics: they look for anything and anyone that will help divide America and make us weaker, with this pandemic just being a “gift” of an opportunity for the Kremlin.

America certainly had its own strains of ignorance without any Russian meddling (to quote the great J. G. A. Pocock, “it is notorious that American culture is haunted by myths, many of which arise out of the attempt to escape history and then regenerate it”), but Russian disinformation and cyberwarfare thrives on this ignorance.  As part of Moscow’s campaign to knowingly falsely blame the U.S. for a multitude of things—from the downing of civilian airliner MH17 (shot down over Ukraine in 2014 by a Russian missile given by Russia to pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists_ to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the then-Soviet Union—Russia is now blaming the U.S. for engineering the coronavirus as a bioweapon (or sometimes 5G is to blame; yeah, the Russians are a huge part of that, too).  This follows similar efforts to blame the U.S. for spreading Ebola, HIV/AIDS, even swine flu.  The Kremlin has also been boosting America’s dangerous anti-vaxxer movement.  Overall, when it comes to health, Russia has engaged in campaigns to stoke Americans’ fears of diseases, make us more susceptible to disease, and weaken our overall trust in U.S. healthcare and medical expertise, trust that is essential for any kind of response to a public health crisis in a democracy to be effective.

The same organs of disinformation behind Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” (to quote a RAND report) for all recent disinformation campaigns are being utilized in this latest coronavirus campaign, and, like the other campaigns, it is achieving results: a recent Pew study showed that close to a third of Americans believe in the totally unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that coronavirus was man-made in some sort of lab and is not natural, with one quarter saying they are not sure either way.  To be fair, top elements of the Trump Administration are pushing an unfounded conspiracy theory that the new coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, and China has been joining Russia in promoting the idea that the U.S. is behind the virus.  While the survey does not specify where the virus originated or who was behind it, the right-wing in America has been pushing the Chinese lab theory and, as I have noted elsewhere, anti-Semitic explanations and sentiments regarding the virus.  The Chinese lab theory is now favored by the president himself, along with Sec. of State Mike Pompeo and top Trump trade and China advisor Peter Navarro.  Apart from numerous and varied other widespread disinformation campaigns and misinformation vectors, very active and present Russian disinformation still makes up an important portion of the overall disinformation being bandied about, contributing to an overall atmosphere of conspiracy, distrust, confusion, fear, and just plain bad information, casting doubt and adding more non-reality based noise to the conversation, so regardless of whether Americans—who are being widely exposed to these conspiracy theories—are convinced by Russian propaganda or not that the U.S. that “created” the virus, the Russian efforts still contribute substantially to a deteriorating informational climate.  Specifically, these efforts further feed an atmosphere suggesting specifically that coronavirus was created in a lab somewhere while generally helping to saturate that atmosphere with bad information, muddying the waters and obfuscating the truth for many Americans.   It certainly does not help that the top current U.S. political leaders and many lower-level politicians in addition to media outlets in the country are embracing similar false theories even if the culprits “making” the virus vary.  And three other factors serve as additional amplifiers poisoning the atmosphere here: that Americans are increasingly subscribing to fantastical conspiracy theories in general, that conspiracy theories are more attractive and powerful in times of crisis, and that studies confirm a large portion of Americans are simply bad at discerning fact from fiction and are easily confused.

These dynamics are as good as any at illustrating how Russian efforts and homegrown efforts and attitudes play together like a symphony orchestra performance conducted by Putin to play to his ends.  The last concert he conducted, with his Kremlin Symphony Orchestra performing original Putin works, did not go very well for us, and this new one could very well be worse.

In the midst of Russia’s coronavirus disinformation and 2020 election interference efforts targeting the U.S., as another example of both ends feeding into Russian interests, the Trump Administration allowed Russia—even as a hostile actor—to deliver coronavirus aid to us on American soil in a publicized way, a shocking yet par-for-the-course act for the current administration. 

And so Russia keeps up its public relations stunts and disinformation, hoping to deflect attention from incriminating events at home as coronavirus infections soar to make Russia alternate with Brazil as the third and second-most infected country in the world even by the official numbers, with the reality being that there are virtually certainly government efforts to suppress a far grimmer actual toll (some medical staff are reportedly being instructed not to record coronavirus deaths as caused by coronavirus).  There have even been three Russian medical professionals questioning or distraught by Russia’s coronavirus response who “fell” out of windows in just two weeks, two dying and one critically injured; such “accidents” or worse tend to befall a wide variety or whistleblowers, journalists, critics of the Putin, and others Putin wants to make disappear.

What will not disappear are the threats posed by Russian disinformation, cyberwarfare, election interference, and the Kremlin’s undisclosed biowarfare program.

Unless the U.S. has since obtained direct and continued intelligence on the exact nature of the genetically engineered strains and man-made Frankenstein viruses described by top defectors—highly unlikely—it is almost certain that the U.S. would be defenseless against such bioagents deliberately designed to overcome existing vaccines, medicine, and treatment.  Looking at how much coronavirus has crippled the U.S., if America was not able to work on specific remedies designed to counter these Russian superagents by directly studying them over time directly and rigorously testing biodefense measures—new vaccines, medicine—against these new agents, it would be impossible for us to come up with anything that could effectively protect Americans from them, let alone have the remedies mass-manufactured and ready for distribution and safe usage.  A first strike with such weapons would likely be the only strike necessary to incapacitate most of America’s defenses and to destroy America as we know it.  As discussed, apocalyptic-minded bioterrorists would be more likely to use a nightmare bioweapon.  Yet however unlikely such a strike from a state like Russia would be, being ill-prepared will only increase that likelihood.

The current international Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) treaty prohibiting offensive bioweapons and related research—to which Russia is a signatory—is a legal one, but without any verification or control mechanisms.  We must absolutely have a more forceful international bioweapons inspections system and use all peaceful means to force Russia into compliance.  Ideally, this would be through the United Nations, except Russia will clearly veto such binding frameworks and resolutions, or, even if it did not, would surely veto any Security Council efforts to specifically hold Russia to account or to submit to and/or comply with robust inspections.  It will instead fall on the U.S., Canada, the EU, Japan, and other allied and like-minded nations to collectively impose their own sanctions on Russia to force compliance or demonstrate a stiff economic price for non-compliance, much like was the case after Russia’s invasions of Ukraine’s eastern and Crimean regions.  Setting an example with Russia would set a proper tone for the unfolding century, and other rogue states would also see the costs of pursuing bioweapons and be more inclined to play by the rules if Russia is brought to heel.  And each state that is brought to heel can be part of a mandatory coalition to combat bioterrorism as part of their respective arrangements, with the BWC being rewritten to include robust counterbioterrorism provisions and severe penalties for supporting or failing to act against bioterrorism or for failing to properly secure sensitive materials involving deadly disease research.

A Collective Responsibility to Do Better

The actions suggested just above constitute dealing with unconventional, asymmetric warfare at the highest levels.

But the lowest levels are just as important.

We must also deal with our societal ills that make us so susceptible to disinformation, Russian or otherwise.  To a significant degree, preparing for unconventional, asymmetric information warfare and cyberwarfare also prepares us for pandemics, biowarfare, and bioterrorism: at the core of each is a willingness to defer to experts and to cultivate our minds to be able to properly vet what is coming from a position of factual vetting and properly understanding who and what is targeting us to take advantage of our weaknesses, biases, and predispositions.  Leaving our minds susceptible to disinformation and misinformation—whether it is about our elections and candidates or our public health system and information on a deadly disease—is like allowing our computer networks to go without security software, allowing our enemies to manipulate us and take advantage of our weaknesses to weaken our nation.  Thus, whether dealing with coronavirus, bioweapons, or Russian disinformation, taking concrete steps to tackle one will often pay off in our fight against the others.  And we have little reason to doubt that Russia will integrate coronavirus into its ambitious 2020 election interference—or, more aptly termed, Second Russo-American Cyberwar—or doubt that Russia is looking at and developing ways to turn coronavirus into a bioweapon as it did with smallpox and so many other bioagents in the past. 

Hence, biosecurity, disinformation security, and election security come together as part of the larger unconventional, asymmetric landscape.

In her conclusion to her must-read article “Disinformation, Democracy, and the Rule of Law,” former FBI counterintelligence agent and current Yale University senior lecturer on national security Asha Rangappa notes the complex, multidimensional aspects of Russia’s unconventional, asymmetric warfare against the United States:

Much of the public discussion on Russia’s disinformation operations in the U.S. has focused on their impact on the 2016 election and how they might affect elections in the future.  But the damage that Russia seeks to inflict through its disinformation campaign isn’t limited to electoral contests.  Rather, its long-term strategy has been to erode faith in the primary pillars upon which our democracy is based—including the rule of law and the institutions that support it.  So far, Russia’s efforts are yielding fruit, and technological and legislative fixes alone will be insufficient to counter them.  Defending against Russian disinformation in the long term will require a strategy to fortify America’s social fabric with an understanding of shared civic values that can serve as a prophylactic against Russia’s future attacks. 

She makes it all too clear that the government alone cannot save us from the manipulations of Russia’s disinformation and other techniques of division:

The framing of the Russian disinformation threat as a cybersecurity issue makes it tempting to look to the government, or to social media companies, to fix the problem. Regulatory and technological solutions are needed, and may well make it harder for Russia to employ the kinds of information warfare that it used in 2016.  But they will not address the fundamental vulnerability which Russia successfully exploited, which is the increasing social and political fissures in society and the resulting erosion of social trust in the U.S. over the past decades.

As a solution, Rangappa exhorts us to shore up the American weaknesses Russia exploits with a rebirth and renewal of citizenship, community, and civic life:

A model to rebuild social capital in America—and strengthen social trust—can feel unsatisfying, since it is intangible, difficult to measure, and disperses responsibility on us, as citizens.  At the same time, however, it can be empowering, as it offers a way for Americans to take ownership of a large part of the solution.  Russia’s attack on our democracy is an invitation for us to examine our relationship with fellow citizens, and how technology has affected the way we engage with them online and in real life.  By reclaiming democratic values that transcend political differences, and leveraging the most effective vehicles we have to disseminate them (including social media!), the U.S. can generate an immunity to Russia’s destabilization efforts which will endure over the long term.

In the syllabus for one of her classes that is very much an extension of her essay, Professor Rangappa provides a road map for the way forward with a robust list of materials, including:

  1. Orwell’s legendary 1984 (to help bolster our defenses against not only totalitarianism and groupthink but also Orwellian disinformation and the manipulation of language so endemic in its use by troublemakers both at home and abroad)
  2. The singular de Tocqueville’s ever-relevant, ever-insightful, ever-enduring Democracy in America (to understand our unique historical strengths and weaknesses and how they have factored into our democracy)
  3. Amu Chua’s Political Tribes, an account of American tribalism (a force that we must understand and fight against more effectively, as it is tearing our country apart)
  4. Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone (to understand how important social capital and civic engagement are in creating and maintaining a strong society)
  5. The documentary Active Measures (to properly understand the methods by which Putin is attacking and harming our democracy)
  6. Schoolhouse Rock(the episodes on American government and history, to show how learning about civics can be fun and also appeal to young Americans)

Professor Rangappa’s cocktail of learning is a foundation for a national societal strategy:

  1. Understand how anti-democratic forces work to distort reality and language, along with rewriting history, in a war on reality we have to win
  2. Know ourselves from an objective perspective (the good, the bad, and the ugly)
  3. Understand how corrosive our own tribalism in America is and how we can fight it even before taking into account foreign efforts to exploit it
  4. Gain a newfound appreciation for social capital and civic engagement so that we can restructure society to prioritize these vital pillars of healthy democracy
  5. Know our chief foreign enemy, Vladimir Putin, and his methods, as well as how and why he has been successful in damaging America
  6. Remember how important it is to start with civics and understanding our history and system overall and at a young age so that we may revive our moribund civics curricula for all American students going forward

Ultimately, such a strategy and priority-resetting will help us revive and further realize our Founding Fathers’ vision for America.

Virtue, then, along with biodefense and information warfare, is also a national security issue.

If you are rolling your eyes a bit with the serious suggestion that “we as individuals must be better and do more,” know that this consideration of virtue was of primary concern to the Founding Fathers and many great men before and after them.  They might not have used the term “national security” the way we do and I just did, but it was still a primary national security issue for our Founders nonetheless.

Few have articulated this sentiment as well and with such authority, and perhaps none better, then James Madison himself—eventual fourth president and architect and overall author of the U.S. Constitution—when he was making the case to the public in 1788, in writing and anonymously, for the adoption of that Constitution in The Federalist, in “No. 55,” to be exact:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.  Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

In other words, “We the People” must be worthy enough as a people—enough of us individually so that it is true in a collective sense—or this whole democracy thing is not going to work out so well.

Yes, in the short term, we must act boldly at the highest levels of our government and international bodies to prepare for the next pandemic and our first major bioawarfare or bioterrorist attack.  But in the long-run, we must fix our ailing society which produced such an unconscionable, unforgivable response to the novel coronavirus in the first place.  And as ambitious as my soon-to-be-unveiled cabinet-level Department of Pandemic Preparedness and Response proposal will be demonstrated to be in relation to the first goal, it will be that second task that will be the far more challenging one.


Cassandra: Even then I told my people all the grief to come…

Aieeeee! —
the pain, the terror! the birth-pang of the seer 
who tells the truth — 
                                     it whirls me, oh, 
the storm comes again, the crashing chords!…

Leader[/Chorus]: Poor creature, you 
and the end you see so clearly. I pity you.

Agamemnon, 1216-1344, by Aeschylus (458 BCE), Robert Fagles translation

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

See Brian’s full coronavirus coverage here and his latest eBook version of the full special report,Coronavirus the Revealer: How the Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes America As Unprepared for Biowarfare & Bioterrorism, Highlighting Traditional U.S. Weakness in Unconventional, Asymmetric Warfare, available in Amazon KindleBarnes & Noble Nook, and EPUB editions.

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