Recent experiments have given scientists some insight into why the 1918 flu virus was so effective at attacking the infected host.

Dr John Kash, lead author of the study and assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, said: “What we think is happening is that the host’s inflammatory response is being highly activated by the virus, and that response is making the virus much more damaging to the host.

“The host’s immune system may be overreacting and killing off too many cells, and that may be a key contributor to what makes this virus more pathogenic.”

An over-reacting immune system, responding to the initial viral infection, was effectively doing much more damage to the host without ridding it of the virus. Thus we are faced with the counter-intuitive notion that suppressing the immune system may actually improve ones chance for survival. Indeed, the 1918 epidemic was most devastating to young adults; that is, those with the healthiest immune response.

The consequences of an over-reactive and mis-directed defense can, in effect, amplify the damage of the initial incursion. An incorrect analysis of the terrorist threat inevitably results in civilisations turning their own defenses against their citizens and friends. An inevitable result is that innocents are tortured or killed, while enemies thrive. Leaders, and the electorate from whom they derive their power, are faced with the same counter-intuitive choice that suppressing ones own defenses will yield better results in the war on terrorism. Security expert, Bruce Schneier, commented on the recent liquid explosives plot:

“Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.”

And those fears allow opportunistic attacks by those promising to protect us as was recently demonstrated by the recent passing of the detainee bill in the US Congress – a law that gives the US president the power to define what types of torture violate the Geneva Conventions, apply these redefinitions retroactively, widen applicability of indefinite detention to include American citizens, and revoke habeus corpus for any non-citizens perceived to be an enemy of the state. The state sponsored security apparatus that is now enshrined in American law is reminiscent of that employed against the desaparecidos yet a significant number of US citizens invoke the fear of terrorism as the key justification for their support of these measures. Small wonder that many progressive commenters liken the recent curtailment of key freedoms to the events in ancient times that led to the fall of the Roman Republic. It is easy to nitpick at the flaws of such historical comparisons, as the rightwing bloggers are so quick to point out, however one should not be over eager to dismiss the biological analogues. Our collective lives may depend on it.

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