The Viruses Are Coming! The Viruses Are Coming!

    Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the Bush administration seems increasingly to see the military as a solution to domestic problems.

    The administration is bandying about the idea of taking disaster relief out of the Department of Homeland Security and giving it to the Pentagon. This is getting rather far afield from the military’s overriding mission — winning wars.

    Even further afield is what President Bush this week asked Congress to give him: The power to order the military to enforce quarantines in areas of the country infected with lethal disease. Implicit in the request is that the military could use force if necessary.

    The worry is that avian flu, which still has killed only about 60 worldwide, might mutate into a killer flu and become a pandemic on the order of the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed perhaps 25 million to 50 million people. The threat so far is only speculative but one that scientists, public health officials and, to its credit, the Bush administration are taking seriously.

    The United States is coordinating meetings among the major nations aimed at detecting, monitoring and preventing a lethal outbreak. Vaccines have been developed, but it is a laborious process and one still far from anything like mass inoculations.

    One doomsday scenario under consideration is mass quarantines. At his Rose Garden press conference, Bush said, “It’s one thing to shut down airplanes. It’s another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu. And who best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move. So that’s why I put it on the table. I think it’s an important debate for Congress to have.”

    With two wars on their hands and problems with recruitment and worn-out equipment, the Army and Marines do not need the distraction of planning and training for mass quarantines. If _ and let us hope it is a remote and improbable “if” _ the nation must use armed force to prevent Americans from traveling freely because of a public health crisis, the job properly belongs to law enforcement, the National Guard and, yes, FEMA.

    In a country as developed and mobile as the United States, quarantines are unlikely to work except in isolated areas and in limited circumstances _ that is, where there is general and voluntary agreement among the people themselves not to go in or out of an infected area.

    If we can’t keep illegal immigrants from freely flocking across the border with Mexico, the 82nd Airborne isn’t going to be able to stop people from going in and out of, say, Illinois. The solution to the menace posed by bird flu is in a laboratory, and not at a military roadblock.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)