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A vocabulary of dis-ease: argumentation, hot zones, and the intertextuality of bioterrorism.

"[A]s nothing exists outside the text, there is never a whole of the text."

--Roland Barthes

On February 19, 2010, the FBI closed its investigation into the 2001 anthrax mail attacks, concluding on the basis of an array of circumstantial evidence that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had produced and mailed the anthrax spores. Ivins had committed suicide in July 2008 allegedly as a result of the pressure of the FBI's investigation, but neither Ivins's death nor the FBI's decision that it could adequately prove its case in fact resulted in an end to the public deliberation about the anthrax attacks. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), for example, immediately called for a congressional review of the FBI's work and decision to close the inquiry (Shane, 2010). More than merely a final step in legal or administrative protocol, the FBI's closing of the case despite ongoing public argumentation reveals the wish to say completely, to make present in its epistemological totality, the truth of the U.S. experience of bioterrorism. Such a truth would be more than simply accurate data gathered through forensic science; it would be only that data with the additional stipulation that there is nothing more to be said, no more text to interpret, even as the U.S. public continues to negotiate what bioterrorism means for society. An actual trial would have demonstrated the fundamental impossibility of truly closing the case by making plain that the FBI's conclusion was not settled truth but an argument. Whatever the final verdict, Ivins's guilt or innocence would have been determined by the effect of a multitude of persuasive appeals toward the jury rather than the ontological fact of whether or not he produced and mailed the anthrax spores.

The assumption of a phenomenal world knowable as a kind of closed truth, however, is an epistemological feature endemic to the vast majority of U.S. risk communication about the threat posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism. Analyses of perceived failures of bioterrorism risk communication cite the public's undesirable behaviors or lack of accurate medical knowledge as an inability on the part of the audience to respond appropriately to the objective facts of disease. Thus, following the 2001 anthrax mail attacks, Marshall, Begier, Griffith, Adams, and Hadler (2005) cite the fact that tens of thousands of people took ciprofloxacin prophylactically, given the occurrence of five deaths out of a total 22 infections, to conclude that "[t]he anthrax attacks caused a national reaction out of proportion to the event itself" (p. 247). Neither the uncertainty about the extent of exposure in the midst of the anthrax mailings nor an abundance of public health caution adequately explains the response. While public health officials erred on the side of caution in cases with any reasonable possibility of exposure and provided the antibiotic for prophylactic use, orders through private insurers skyrocketed, with widespread concerns about hoarding of the publicized drug-of-choice against anthrax (Petersen & Pear, 2001). Many factors contributing to the alarm surrounding the anthrax attacks have been studied, and Vanderford (2003) stated that "[t]raining in the new field of risk communication has been offered as the best solution to communication problems in future emergencies" (p. 11) handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication textbook (Reynolds, 2002) utilized for this training relies, like several other studies on bioterrorism risks conducted for the CDC, upon a general epistemology that contrasts a world of accurate information to exaggerations or public misunderstanding of risk and crisis communication (see Ayotte, Bernard, & O'Hair, 2009, pp. 617-18).

This epistemological assumption can be seen across scholarship adopting what is essentially a deficit model of public health knowledge. Blendon et al. (2003) report that "survey results suggest the need for public education about smallpox, since many Americans have beliefs about the disease that are incorrect according to scientific views" (p. 431). Marshall et al. (2005) therefore advocate public education with the objective of "an increase in knowledge of smallpox mortality, transmission, contagiousness, and vaccine risk [which] would result in less anxiety and more rational personal decisions and public health response demands by the public" (p. 252). Public health officials often identify the simple lack of information about the relatively novel threat of bioterrorism, outside most people's rudimentary knowledge of disease pathology and transmission, as a cause of public misunderstanding. Other commentators blame news media and politicians' "gross exaggeration" (Leitenberg, 2005, p. 45) of the threat of bioterrorism for behavior out of line with critics' assessment of the threat (see also Cole, 1999; Tucker & Sands, 1999).

The positivist epistemological framework of public health officials-framing knowledge as either present or lacking, accurate or inaccurate-misunderstands the problem. Audiences interpreted public health advocacy surrounding the 2001 anthrax mailings, like all discourse advancing arguments about the nature of and response to bioterrorism threats, within an already established context of cultural knowledge about killer viruses. This article broadens understanding of how people in the United States have come to know bioterrorism by examining the manner in which post-Cold War public discourse about biological terrorism has been inflected by the intertextuality of U.S. encounters with so-called "emerging" viruses such as Ebola. More specifically, I argue that the rhetorical legacy of Richard Preston's (1994) nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, plays a significant role in shaping the premises of public arguments about biological threats. Public health officials need to understand all bioterrorism risk communication as fundamentally rhetorical, a complex process of arguing about the nature, probability, and significance of hazards. This risk communication is part of, and its meaning is shaped by, a wider discourse about viral outbreaks that achieved cultural prominence shortly after the end of the Cold War. Critical attention to arguments in contemporary biosecurity discourse must therefore account for data and warrants that derive their content from intertextual references to popular culture outside of the medical facts offered by any particular instance of risk communication.

The first section of this article establishes a theoretical framework for exploring the role of latent cultural knowledge in situating new information about bioterrorism within an established array of meanings available to public audiences. The second section identifies the commercial news media's reliance on the intertextuality of The Hot Zone for interpreting the 2001 anthrax mailings and subsequent fears of bioterrorism. The third section of the essay traces the establishment of The Hot Zone, and its gruesome account of the Ebola virus, as a key coordinate of what would become the cultural map for bioterrorism in post-Cold War U.S. public argument. The final section of the article considers the impact of this cultural map, with its vocabulary of dis-ease, on public argumentation about bioterrorism.


Although public health officials are the most trusted source of information about bioterrorism, the primary sources of information actually utilized are local television and radio followed by cable and network television news channels (Pollard, 2003), requiring a careful analysis of the ways in which media quite literally produce information on this topic. Following what it perceived to be certain missteps in public health risk communication during the anthrax event of 2001, the CDC's Office of Communication seemed to recognize some of the complexity of mediated risk communication. For instance, Vanderford (2003) emphasized the importance of attention to contextual variables such as "audience beliefs, earlier messages audiences have heard about a subject, and competing messages" (p. 12) that can affect audience response to messages during public health emergencies. As I argue below, the absence of explicit attention to the texts of popular culture that comprise a great deal of the message competition hampers the ability of risk communicators to appreciate fully the range of messages responsible for constructing public knowledge on this issue. The positivist tendency noted above in most risk communication, encouraging a narrow focus on media exaggeration of biological threats as the primary cause of public misinformation, may thus be one of the obstacles to promoting a more critically aware knowledge of bioterrorism.

A discussion among journalists and security experts is illustrative of both the incentive for journalists to dramatize potential dangers and the difficulty faced by journalists and responsible media corporations enmeshed in a market-driven news environment that depends on drawing audiences through dramatic spectacle. Jonathan Tucker, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, recognized that rhetorical restraint by expert sources regarding suspected bioterrorism is complicated by reporters' desire to tell a coherent story: "we can limit the range of hypotheses to those consistent with the facts, but until we have more facts, it's perfectly natural for experts or the news media to speculate" (as cited in Connolly, Dentzer, Keane, & Tucker, 2003, p. 132). In fact, the filling-in of unknown premises often tends to amplify, rather than diminish, the portrayed magnitude of a novel event such as the anthrax mail case, as demonstrated by Susan Dentzer, PBS health correspondent for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

[T]here were enough spores in one of those letters that went to [Senator] Daschle to kill a million people .... [F]ive innocent people are dead. But it could have been millions. And in that uncertainty I don't know where you draw the line and say too much coverage. (as cited in Connolly et al., 2003, p. 133)

As Hall, Critcher,Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts (1978) observe, "journalists will tend to play up the extraordinary, dramatic, tragic, etc. elements in a story in order to enhance its newsworthiness" (pp. 53-54). For simple market reasons ranging from competition with other news outlets to advertising rates, all of which derive from audience size, the editors at media corporations have every incentive to attract consumers with myriad rhetorical techniques capable of dramatizing dryly factual information.

The spectacle of a terrorist biological catastrophe is much more suitable for creating news drama than a thorough explanation that includes the significant technological and practical barriers to executing a successful large-scale attack with harmful pathogens. Of his own experience with "the cable channels" such as "the Geraldo Rivera Show or the Larry King Show," Tucker states:

[W]henever ... I tried to tamp down some of the hysteria I would be cut off.... [I]t was clear to me repeatedly on a number of interviews that when I said, "I think this is unlikely"--when talking about smallpox or large-scale attacks-[and] I would go into the technical hurdles..., I would basically be cut off.... [E]xperts on the more alarmist side of the spectrum ... would get more attention. (as cited in Connolly et al., 2003, p. 134)

News producers might dispute Tucker's accusation on the grounds that the details of the obstacles are too esoteric for lay audiences, but this information would be no more difficult for general audiences to understand than the technological feasibility of such attacks. Politicians and news media make choices to over-simplify the complex processes involved with manufacturing and deploying biological weapons and therefore enhance the drama by making the danger seem more probable. The individual journalist is, of course, bound by the same market incentive to sell a particular story to her or his employer. As Dentzer put it, "the press has a lot of trouble with scientific uncertainty.... [I]f you wrote a story like this, very truthfully, you would never get it on the front page" (as cited in Connolly et al., 2003, p. 135). Commercial news media's inclination to hyperbole is certainly not new, however, and the CDC's risk-communication reviews at least recognize the need to account for obviously implausible portrayals of threats during public-information campaigns.

What remains unaccounted for is the rhetorical significance of the latent cultural resources through which news media make public health information meaningful to U.S. audiences. To the extent that the meanings associated with bioterrorism emerge in part from people's encounters with disease in popular culture, in addition to any information provided by medical experts and news media, critics must account for the ways in which the explicit and implicit invocation of cultural texts shape the content and potential persuasiveness of public argumentation about how people should respond to the threat of biological terrorism. As Derrida (1984) once remarked about nuclear war, biological terrorism is "fabulously textual" (p. 23). In other words, despite limited material experience with bioterrorism in 2001 and a few random incidents before that, the public's encounter with biological weaponry occurs almost entirely in discursive terms. The text(s) of bioterrorism--news stories, photographs, fiction and nonfiction literature, film and television-together comprise the basis of public understanding of the threat posed by biological weapons, and so argument critics must account for these diverse cultural artifacts in any robust analysis of argumentation regarding the bioterror threat. In considering the broad range of sources contributing to public knowledge about bioweapons, Thomas Farrell's (1993) definition of culture as a "common definition of places for the invention and perpetuation of meaning" (p. 277) is particularly useful. Rather than understanding culture as potentially anything in the public sphere, Farrell directs the critic's attention to those common sites in which aspects of reality are made significant and meaningful. Instead of exploding the archive, Farrell's sense of culture encourages critics to focus on pervasive elements of discourse that demonstrate the potential for rhetorical identification among audience members (see Burke, 1989, pp. 179-183). Those aspects of discourse with which people identify in common serve as the basis for shared meaning-making.

Public discourse on bioterrorism, suffused with argumentation about disease agents and their effects, the likelihood of terrorist attack, and appropriate countermeasures, requires common meanings that allow people to recognize disease names and symptoms, interpret narratives about terrorism as malevolent and destructive, and participate in various protective activities. At this intersection of advocacy and the production of collective meaning, Condit (1990) offers a useful definition of public argument as "the process through which the underlying interests of rhetorically organized and differently empowered groups or classes contest against and with each other for particular policies and practices through the negotiation of persuasive meanings" (p. 8). Condit develops the concept of a public vocabulary as one important discursive mechanism through which the meanings central to decision and action on a particular issue are agreed upon, since "the process of convincing requires not only that a given policy be accepted but also that a given vocabulary (or set of understandings) be integrated into the public repertoire" (p. 6). The meanings attached to this vocabulary may not in fact be identical across interlocutors, hence the ongoing negotiation of meaning as part of the process of argument, but the availability of that common vocabulary is a crucial element of any public argument about bioterrorism. I will return later to consider Condit's explanation of the function of public vocabularies in the process of argumentation. In order to explore the ways in which the vocabulary of bioterrorism discourse both evokes and comprises the interpretive pathways by which public audiences make sense of bioterrorism, I first consider how news media situate novel phenomena like bioterror within an already meaningful cultural landscape.

Put simply, news about bioterrorism is not merely new information but rather additional discourse layered onto already-existing public knowledge. Hall et al. (1978) offer the concept of the cultural map to explain how news media make new information comprehensible to audiences on the basis of already shared common meanings.

This process-identification and contextualisation--is one of the most important through which events are "made to mean" by the media. An event only "makes sense" if it can be located within a range of known social and cultural identifications. If newsmen [sic] did not have available-in however routine a way-such cultural "maps" of the social world, they could not "make sense" for their audiences of the unusual, unexpected and unpredicted events. (p. 54)

The public for bioterrorism discourse is effectively constituted by its potential to participate mutually in the common production of meaning about biological weapons threats offered by news media. As Hauser (1987) puts it, the "constituents of publicness" are the "discursive features from which individuals who are personally strangers derive the core of common meanings that enable them to inhabit the same world" (pp. 437-38). Public advocacy regarding bioterrorism threats and appropriate responses plays out in a public sphere already populated by vernacular meanings for diseases and terrorism, even when that advocacy is initiated by medical experts or politicians on the basis of risk assessments conducted within the technical sphere that encompasses both biomedicine and national security policy. A cultural map may in this sense be thought of as the chain of significations through which particular rhetorical (including journalistic) practices guide audiences in the interpretation of meaning within a given discourse; also, audiences can themselves invoke cultural maps independent of any direction by advocates or the news media. Attendees to the discourse will not all necessarily perceive identical meanings nor is any given signification fixed for all time. Rather, a cultural map is a constellation of signs available to advocates and audiences. Those signs are located within the unique discursive and material history of a public looking to those signs for the mutual identification of their shared world. Moreover, although the interpretive topography of any cultural map can potentially be influenced by a rhetorical act (such as adding or changing discursive coordinates on it, and therefore altering the contours of meaning made possible by the map as a whole), the interpretations enabled within any discourse are ultimately rhetorical features of that discourse independent of the whim or design of any single actor. Nonetheless, Hall et al.'s concept of the cultural map is a useful one for explaining the complexly intertextual manner by which particular meanings have become attached, however precariously, to public knowledge about bioterrorism.


This section traces the invocation of one coordinate, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (1994), of a larger cultural map of bioterrorism in stories published in major national newspapers, newsmagazines, and nationally televised news programs after September 11, 2001. The claim of this article is not that this survey is exhaustive, so as to capture some ideal whole of the bioterrorism text, but rather that the cultural map examined here is prominent in bioterrorism discourse consumed by millions of audience members. Consequently, the rhetorical features of Preston's macabre account of the Ebola virus inform public discourse about bioterrorism in demonstrable ways, requiring any notion of effective risk communication about bioterrorism to account for the ways in which entrenched cultural maps will complicate political and public health advocacy related to biological weapons.

Despite the tragedy of several deaths from anthrax in 2001, the U.S. public has had relatively little exposure to biological weapons as a significant threat to national security and public health. Other than the 1984 tainting of salad bars in a small Oregon town with salmonella by members of the Rajneeshee cult (Miller, Engelberg, & Broad, 2001), the U.S. public's prior experience with biological weapons was thoroughly textual, part of which included all of the discourse about the Soviet biological arsenal. While not insignificant, U.S. worry about Soviet bioweapons was unquestionably subsumed by the far more ubiquitous anxiety surrounding nuclear warfare. Thus, although fears of the U.S.S.R's biological weapons are sometimes recalled in post-Cold War bioterrorism discourse, those Cold War anxieties do not comprise the entirety of the contemporary bioterror text.

Although news accounts of bioterrorism after September 11, 2001, cited many experts on the topic to bolster the credibility of the journalistic narrative, one name recognizable from its presence on the New York Times bestseller list, rather than the technical background of the individual, appears with notable frequency. News media utilized the coordinate on the cultural map afforded by Preston's popularity as the author of The Hot Zone (1994), The Cobra Event (1997), and The Demon in the Freezer (2002) not only to situate new fears about bioterrorism within an existing context of public argument, but also ultimately as a basis for Preston's own assumption of expertise. Preston, whose doctorate from Princeton is in English rather than medical science or international relations, quickly became prized as a source for news reporting on bioterrorism. Diane Sawyer, on ABC's Good Morning America on September 25, 2001, quotes Preston about the effects of anthrax and smallpox (as cited in Miller, 2001). Even reviews of books about bioterrorism, such as a review of Miller et al.'s (2001) Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War in the St. Petersburg Times, help to establish Preston as an expert by reference to the authority of people influenced by his writing. As Hammond (2001) notes, "Since Sept. 11, after all, the image of crop-dusters spreading pathogens over our cities no longer seems like just the stuff of Tom Clancy thrillers" (p. 5D). Hammond goes on to describe how Miller et al. (2001) explained that former president Bill Clinton relied upon Clancy's novel Rainbow Six and Preston's The Cobra Event for the urgency with which he perceived the threat of bioterrorism.

Especially evident here is the profound intertextuality through which references to Preston's (1997) fictional The Cobra Event become inextricable from what is offered as knowledge about bioterrorism in general. The San Antonio Express-News, for instance, after claiming that the threat of bioterrorism "is not merely a scare headline ... or a pitch for the latest big-screen thriller," then quotes as evidence Preston's The Cobra Event. "The knowledge is public, the techniques are commonplace. The dark apple hangs on the tree" (as cited in "Bioterrorism Threat," 2001, p. 2G). The dispute over the technical barriers to significant bioterrorist success has yet to be settled, but the veracity of Preston's assertion is not the point. For the analysis at hand, the key is to note the ease with which premises surrounding bioterrorism become derived from intertextual references to the map of popular culture, potentially influencing in significant ways judgments about later public arguments that invoke these assumptions. The language in Stein's (2001) Washington Post review of Miller et al.'s Germs, is illustrative, echoing the story about Clinton's being jolted to awareness of bioterrorism by Preston's The Cobra Event and labeling the latter book a "thinly fictionalized account of how a mad scientist wreaked havoc in New York City with a designer smallpox" (p. T05). On the one hand, the repetitive citations of Preston's name and the titles of his bestsellers reinforce the credibility of both as appropriate to informing the nonfiction practices of a president's threat assessment. On the other hand, Stein offers readers an implicit reassurance of the accuracy of Preston's narrative of disease as part of the cultural map for understanding bioterrorism, as the text of Preston's Cobra Event is only "thinly" removed from what, by negative definition, must be reality.

Assorted media began to designate Preston's expertise, but such citations almost always mention The Hot Zone, as if the author's name were truly just a metonym for the gruesome narrative about the Ebola virus that launched his fame. Preston, identified as "an expert on bioweaponry" by the Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington, IL, himself references this cultural map, relating how his concern about biological warfare emerged out of his research for The Hot Zone, which the Pantagraph describes as a "best-selling non-fiction work, eventually made into the movie 'Outbreak,' [that] documented a natural outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus near Washington, D.C., in 1989" (Richardson, 2001, p. A3). Even the expertise of actual medical doctors is reinforced by reference to the cultural map that The Hot Zone has become; a story in the Houston Chronicle, "Medical Experts on Front Lines in Anti-Terror War," emphasizes the celebrity of virologists at the University of Texas Medical Branch, like Dr. C.J. Peters, by reference to his being portrayed as a lead character in Preston's The Hot Zone and by Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak (Hopper, 2001, p. A37).

Amid increasingly alarmist political rhetoric seeking to link alleged Iraqi biological weapons programs to the lingering fear of terrorism, Preston's expertise via his intertextual entwinement with the cultural memory of The Hot Zongs Ebola virus narrative was assumed by those involved with biodefense policy analysis. A National Defense University paper on the threat of agroterrorism cites Preston's (1998a) New Yorker article, "The Bioweaponeers," on the risk of genetically engineered bioterror agents and as the only source for the prospect that Russian scientists had perfected a recombinant hybrid of smallpox and Ebola (Parker, 2002, p. 3, n16 and n23). Preston's article may well be considered a reputable example of science journalism, but his popular fame from The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event seems to be the best explanation for the decision to cite him in this instance. By 2002, any number of articles on the risk of genetically modified biological weapons had been published in technical journals, and Ken Alibek (1999), the former Soviet bioweaponeer who was the key source in Preston's (1998a) article, had published his own first-hand account of the U.S.S.R.'s Ebola research.

The publication of Preston's The Demon in the Freezer (2002), a nonfiction work about the past and future of smallpox as a biological weapon, kept him in the news as a convenient expert amid the continuing public anxiety about bioterrorism. During the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Preston, identified as a "bioterrorism expert" and author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer with credentials of writing about "anthrax and smallpox and the Ebola virus," was interviewed to pronounce that the SARS event was a natural outbreak rather than the result of terrorism (Hemmer, 2003a). Qualified as "the best-selling author of 'The Hot Zone' and 'The Demon in the Freezer'" who "specializes in reporting on viruses and emerging infectious diseases," Preston was again interviewed by CNN's Bill Hemmer (2003b) regarding the investigation into the 2001 anthrax mail attacks. The Economist's review of The Demon in the Freezer essentially instructs audiences to read the whole swath of public discourse about bioterrorism intertextually in terms of Preston's work; after a brief reference to Preston's The Hot Zone inspiring a Hollywood film, the Economist concludes that Demon's "real value lies in putting today's anthrax fears into a broader and more frightening context" ("Chariots of Fear," 2002, p. 78).

This section has argued that, in addition to factual information from public health officials and a full range of rhetoric from politicians about bioterrorism threats, the local and national broadcast and print news media relied significantly on the intertextual resonance of Preston's The Hot Zone as a cultural map to establish the meaningful reality of bioterrorism for the U.S. public of the 21st century. However, if a public vocabulary comprised of references to Preston and his writing has become part of the convoluted text of bioterrorism that has confounded doctors, policy analysts, and rhetorical critics alike, the task remains for us to describe the contours of the larger cultural map that serves as a public site-in-common for the discursive construction of meaning about disease. While critics must keep in mind that any cultural map is always already in the process of being rewritten, and that no aspect of signification can be reduced to a single originary point, it is nonetheless possible to trace the emergence of Preston's The Hot Zone into the larger media discourse about bioterrorism and its sedimentation into a cultural map through which the public makes sense out of new information about biological weapons.


In 1994, Richard Preston's new book, The Hot Zone, quickly became a national bestseller. Preston's The Hot Zone hit the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list on October 16, 1994, where it remained for 42 weeks in hardcover followed by another 46 weeks in paperback. Preston's book is an account of the recent history of two particularly nasty viruses, Marburg and Ebola, both of which cause hemorrhagic fevers with extremely high mortality rates. The bulk of the book describes the 1989 outbreak of a strain of the Ebola virus among monkeys at a primate research quarantine facility in Reston, VA. Preston relates the justifiable concern of scientists at the CDC and USAMRIID when they suspected that Ebola Reston (as this strain came to be called) was spread through the air (unlike all other known strains), generating fears of a massive human outbreak in the United States. Fatal in monkeys, Ebola Reston was eventually discovered to be harmless to humans (unlike all of the other strains of Ebola), although four monkey caretakers were infected by the virus. As Preston's text explains in his suspenseful narrative, the U.S. Army was eventually called into the facility to euthanize the 450 animals that had not already succumbed to the infection.

Preston (1994) takes the title of the book from the informal jargon used by scientists and military personnel to designate an area containing biological, chemical, or radiological hazards. He introduces the phrase in a scene where a supervisor at USAMRIID decides that a veterinarian has demonstrated her readiness to work in "a hot zone" (p. 48), the Biosafety Level 4 Ebola suite at USAMRIID. The phrase is apparently an evolution of the use of the term hot to describe radioactivity, with Smyth (1945) providing an early application to radioactive space by reference to a "'hot laboratory'" (p. 102) in the first official account of the Manhattan Project. Absent extensive archival work, it remains unclear exactly when the military's hot jargon came to include biological contamination. Miller et al. (2001) imply, through their reference to "'hot zones' teeming with disease germs" (p. 41) when describing a young scientist's 1951 arrival at the Fort Derrick bioweapons lab, that the crossover occurred early in the Cold War, at least informally among military scientists. That specific term does not seem to be used in formal military publications until much later, however. The U.S. Department of the Army's (1993) field manual, NBC [Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical] Reconnaissance uses the phrase "hot spots" (p. A-1) but only directly in association with radiological contamination. A decade later, in the superseding U.S. Army Chemical School's (2004) reconnaissance field manual, "hot zone" (pp. IX-4, E-3, E-6) is used to designate biological, chemical, and radiological contamination. None of this suggests that Preston's book is responsible for the U.S. military's adoption of the terminology, but as I will discuss below, Preston's work indisputably introduces the vocabulary to the public sphere.

Primed by The Hot Zone, U.S. audiences flocked to see the movie Outbreak (Kopelson, Petersen, & Katz, 1995). Outbreak was inspired by Preston's (1992) New Yorker article, "Crisis in the Hot Zone" (the outline for his 1994 book). In Outbreak, the fictional Motaba virus is essentially an airborne version of Ebola that jumps species from a monkey to spread among the human population of a small California town. Just a few months after the movie opened, another real outbreak of Ebola occurred in Kikwit, Zaire. An article in Time covering the events in Kikwit noted the influence of these popular cultural maps, reporting that

around the world, but especially in the U.S., people sensitized to Ebola's horrors by a spate of books and movies--Richard Preston's chilling best seller The Hot Zone; the TV movie Robin Cook's 'Virus", the film Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman-wondered nervously whether the disease would spread out of Africa. (Lemonick, 1995, p. 63)

The title of the article, "Return to the Hot Zone," itself presumed readers would recognize Preston's work. A Newsweek cover story, also mentioning Preston's The Hot Zone, provided a graphic description of Ebola's symptoms to complement the coverage of Kikwit:

50 to 90 percent of the victims die in a matter of days.... [T]he victim's capillaries clog with dead blood cells, causing the skin to bruise, blister and eventually dissolve like wet paper. By the sixth day, blood flows freely from the eyes, ears and nose, and the sufferer starts vomiting the black sludge of his [sic] disintegrating internal tissues. (Cowley, 1995, pp. 51-52)

The article went on to explain, however, that apocalyptic scenarios of mass contagion were "[n]ot likely" (Cowley, 1995, p. 52). This Newsweek article offered one of the more medically comprehensive news descriptions of Ebola transmission. For instance, the article noted that Ebola outbreaks tend to occur in hospitals where poor sanitation and inadequate medical supplies make iatrogenic infection likely. Once identified and countered with standard infection control procedures, the spread of Ebola is usually halted quickly. Acknowledging the physical constraints that may restrict Ebola from spreading worldwide, the author concluded that "Ebola is ill equipped to go global, and humanity is well equipped to stop it" (Cowley, 1995, p. 53).

Popular culture representations of Ebola were often explicitly identified as the cultural maps according to which the public was supposed to understand emerging viruses. The above Newsweek article included an interview with Preston, who declared: "What's happening in Zaire is only too real. All the popular stuff, including 'The Hot Zone' and the movies, are a reflection of a kind of geological shift in scientific perceptions about what's happening biologically to the human species.... Popularization is a very good thing" (as cited in Watson, 1995, p. 54). Preston's claim neatly obscures the rhetorical dimensions of his textualization of Ebola in The Hot Zone by equating the book with "scientific perceptions" about human biology in general, and the reality of Kikwit in particular. Although one might dismiss Preston's claim as self-promotion, the juxtaposition of his statements to a news story about a real Ebola outbreak and the popularity of his book cannot be ignored. The news media thus magnified relatively small outbreaks of Ebola in Africa and sent them into U.S. living rooms via television, newspapers, and magazines, often echoing, and echoed by, various fiction and nonfiction books and films. In Farmer's (1999) words, "Symbolically if not epidemiologically, Ebola spread like wildfire-as a danger potentially without limit" (p. 46). With the popularization of The Hot Zone, the book and its author achieved sufficient rhetorical credibility that Preston and his writings became influential in disparate arguments seeking to establish the meaning of bioterrorism threats.

By the late 1990s, Preston's expertise regarding bioterrorism had been solidified by the popularity of The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event, although references to the books continued to serve as both cultural signposts and verification of his credibility on the topic. For example, Preston (1998b) claimed, in a New York Times editorial that qualified him as the author of The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event, "Smallpox virus can be made in glass jars the size of wine bottles and released into the air with a humidifier" (p. A21). He then repeated this statement (absent reference to a humidifier) in testimony before the U.S. Senate two days later, during which he warned that the Soviet Biopreparat program in the late 1980s had possessed the capability of a combined plague and smallpox attack "that could easily kill as many people as a major nuclear war" (as cited in Chemical and Biological Weapons Threats, 1998, para. 7). His conclusion was based on his premise that smallpox is "fantastically contagious," where "one human with smallpox can infect 20 or 30 more people" (as cited in Chemical and Biological Weapons Threats, 1998, para. 12). Preston's credibility, as established by the cultural map of bioterrorism that he himself had helped to create, must be the basis for whatever veracity is assigned to his testimony because his statistics differ markedly from empirical experience with smallpox. Meltzer, Damon, LeDuc, and Millar (2001) reviewed historical outbreaks of smallpox and found an average transmission rate of two new infections per initial smallpox patient. While acknowledging that the rate "might be" higher following a deliberate release of smallpox given that much of the U.S. population is now unvaccinated, they found the probability of such a higher rate "cannot be demonstrated reliably" (Meltzer et al., 2001, p. v). Preston's authority as part of the cultural map for understanding bioterror, however, only grew. In the November 8, 1999, issue of Time, Preston (1999) paraphrased his novel, The Cobra Event, to argue that advances in biotechnology will eventually allow scientists to create new microbes that can be turned into biological weapons. Preston's credibility for the interpretation of bioterrorism threats was respected not only by politicians and the public but also by academic researchers. Stern, a well-regarded Lecturer at Harvard University and former Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, cited Preston's The Hot Zone first among other authors in a description of the effects and potential weaponization of Ebola in her 1999 book, The Ultimate Terrorists (p. 41, n33).

Ascertaining the depth and breadth of a particular cultural map in terms of the public's reliance upon it for interpreting some phenomenon, such as bioterrorism, is extremely difficult. The actual citations of Preston or his writing complete part of the puzzle, and are supplemented by random anecdotes, the vocalized few of likely many more frequent cognitive references to particular cultural artifacts, as in the statement by a victim of a February 22, 1999, anthrax hoax at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas City, Missouri: "It was right out of the movie 'Outbreak.' ... They [the biohazard response team] were all in masks and bunny suits" (as cited in Gegax & Hosenball, 1999, p. 36). For the argument at hand, a more reliable test would be the extent to which Preston's (1994) The Hot Zone has become incorporated in the casual language used to discuss bioterrorism. As Table 1 shows, while thousands of articles during and after the Cold War discussed biological terrorism or biological weapons, the use of the phrase hot zone to describe such threats coincides precisely with the October 1994 publication of Preston's book and the resulting intertextual dissemination of author and text in subsequent U.S. public discourse about biological weapons and terrorism. In a search of the Lexis-Nexis database for newspapers and wires, magazines, and broadcast news transcripts containing the phrase hot zone and either biological weapons or terrorism, only three hits occurred prior to September 1, 1989. The seven articles mentioning both hot zone and biological weapons or terrorism during the next five years (1989-1994) all referred to plans to turn Preston's (1992) "Crisis in the Hot Zone" article into a movie. During the five years following the publication of Preston's The Hot Zone(1994-1999), nearly 200 articles and news broadcasts associating these terms appeared, exploding to over 1,000 during the next five-year period (1999-2004), which encompassed September 11, 2001, and the anthrax mail attacks (see Table 1).

The vast majority of these articles and broadcasts do not explicitly cite Preston or his books, but rather use the terminology of hot zone as technical jargon that has become accessible to mass audiences following the dissemination of Preston's work across popular culture. As a site of common meaning-making, news discourse about bioterrorism relying upon the hot zone as accessible jargon allows news viewers to identify with the experts by participating in their pseudo-technical language. While the journalists now employing the casual jargon of the hot zone may well benefit from a secondary credibility akin to the authority acquired by authors like Preston who utilize "scientific theories, intricate descriptions of gear and procedures, [and] jargon" (Weldon, 2001, p. 290), audiences attending to this cultural map similarly have their own competence validated.


Preston's (1994) The Hot Zone certainly cannot be determined as the singular, or even primary, lens through which the U.S. public has come to understand the threat of biological weapons. Obviously, perceptions of the risk of bioterrorism during the past decade have been influenced significantly by the conventional terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the anthrax mailings a month later. Yet, increased public and political concern, the latter marked by substantially increased federal spending on bio-defense, was already in evidence during the last few years of the 20th century (Wright, 2007). The continued prominence of The Hot Zone as part of the cultural map for the interpretation of biological threats, especially in the light of the availability of other interpretive coordinates, requires attention to its role in the public vocabulary of bioterrorism. If critics are to understand why some arguments about the nature of the bioterrorist threat and ideal responses to it take root in the U.S. imaginary, we must examine the ways in which the vocabulary of bioterrorism draws upon the argumentative resources of that intertextual cultural map. Condit (1990) defines a public vocabulary as "[t]he acceptable words, myths, and characterizations used for warranting social behavior in a community" (p. 228). A public vocabulary is not limited to terminology but also encompasses the interpretations and ideological structures that have become linked to particular terms in a given culture's discourse. The public vocabulary thus enables, and in some cases functions as, certain kinds of argumentation on an issue, not determining the outcome of deliberation but shaping it as do other argument structures occurring in the more traditional forms of claim, data, and warrant. As Condit explains, "[f]uture arguments for that group's interests are then easier to make, because supporting practices and the warrants for the arguments are already in place" (p. 7).

The simplest illustration of Condit's theory can be seen in the prospect of finding in the public vocabulary of bioterrorism a warrant for reading Preston's The Hot Zone as a blueprint for biodefense policy. Charles Eppright (1998), for example, suggests that "The Hot Zone itself offers a model for an effective response to a public health crisis involving emerging disease" (p. 38). The problems attending a wholesale application of the pathogen-containment protocol described in The Hot Zone, which included the euthanasia of all monkeys at the Reston facility, seem so obvious that they barely need mention: the military extermination of everyone exposed in a human outbreak hardly seems plausible outside of a Hollywood thriller. Nonetheless, Eppright (1998) identifies one such production, the film Outbreak, as "a model from events now eminently possible in real life about how such an epidemic could occur and a model from popular culture's imagination about what is possible to combat it" (p. 46). Although it would be tempting to dismiss the plausibility of realizing the military's preferred solution in that cinematic model, where a thermobaric bomb was to sterilize a populated California town infected by the fictional Motaba virus, the all-too-real history of rationalizing gross collateral damage from Hiroshima to Baghdad demonstrates the need for critical attention to the warrants carried along with the lexicon of disease.

Existing scholarship has explored the manner by which various forms of language shape, or even take the place of, what comes to count as evidence or even extended chains of reasoning in particular cases of public argument. The ability of metaphors to serve as implicit descriptive arguments about the nature of people or things, such that an auditor's acquiescence to the metaphor as an appropriate description then allows the metaphorical vehicle (and all of its connotations) to function as the grounds for subsequent policy arguments, has been well documented (e.g., Ivie, 1982, 2005; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; O'Brien, 2003; Schiappa, 1989). Other scholars have noted the power of ideographic terms to evoke an entire ideology (e.g., Dobkin, 1992; McGee, 1980; Winkler, 2006), the result of which might be the legitimation of simultaneously argued warrants to the extent that they resonate with elements of that ideology already accepted by the audience. What has received far less scholarly attention, and virtually none in the context of bioterrorism discourse, is the way in which intertextually activated figurative and emotive meanings participate in enthymematic argumentation.

Traditional risk analysis does not exactly follow the deductive structure of argument usually associated with enthymemes, yet such risk calculations can still be enthymematic in the sense of a probabilistic argument where one or more premises are left unstated because they are assumed by speaker and audience. As Rowan (1991) observes, risk assessment is often reduced to a basic logic wherein Risk = Magnitude x Probability (pp. 302-303). However, the premises of the argument may well be held in the minds of speakers and listeners, as when those premises are already part of the cultural map within which the argument is articulated. Moreover, the two grounds-based premises of risk analysis-magnitude and probability-are the facets of what Condit (1990) seems to restrict to the domain of argument that are most clearly shaped by the emotive and figurative force of the public vocabulary provided by The Hot Zone and similar nodes on the cultural map of bioterror.

As a key coordinate for the cultural meanings associated with bioterrorism, Preston's The Hot Zone contributes two notable elements to the U.S. public vocabulary. One is the introduction of the military's jargon hot zone and its metonymic associations with Preston's narrative into the public sphere, as demonstrated by their ubiquity in news media coverage of bioterrorism following the 1994 publication of Preston's book. A second element is the sedimentation of a colloquial familiarity with the Ebola virus, the gruesome symptoms of its hallmark hemorrhagic fever and its African origins, because, as Condit (1990) notes, it is not just the words but sometimes also entire "myths" and "characterizations" (p. 228) attached to them that are mobilized in the service of public argumentation. The bloody pathology of hemorrhagic fevers has become the singularly most memorable aspect of The Hot Zone, Outbreak, and related cultural texts. As Weldon (2001) notes, among the myriad stories about filoviruses (the type including Ebola and Marburg) that gained cultural prominence in the mid-1990s, there is an obsessive dwelling upon a "long and gory list" of symptoms so that virtually every text emphasizes that "there is a lot of blood and that it eventually pours out of every orifice" (p. 289). Few diseases may be more apt than Ebola as the basis for literary and rhetorical appeals to the pathos of fear, as illustrated by an excerpt from one of Preston's multi-page digressions about its symptomatic progression. In The Hot Zone, Preston (1994) writes:

The surface of the tongue ... sloughs off.... [T]he blood that streams out of the body ... resembles whey being squeezed out of curds .... The liver ... begins to liquefy, and then it cracks apart .... In men, the testicles bloat up and turn black-and-blue .... In women, the labia turn blue, livid, and protrusive. (pp. 73-74)

Even a cursory review of news media discussions about the Ebola virus confirms that it is the fantastic gore associated with the hemorrhaging in victims that captures the popular understanding of the disease.

Descriptions of disease are always potentially frightening because their meaning is derived from one's understanding of the violation of the human body, a body that is always metaphorically one's own. As Keranen (2008) explains, representations of biological weapons have the "power to elicit profound existential horror and dread" (p. 229), a psychologically visceral revulsion toward the "viral abject" (Joost Van Loon, as cited in Keranen, 2008, p. 229) evoked by the very idea of such weapons. The spectacularly graphic imagery of bodily injury associated with hemorrhagic fevers, however, can produce a unique brand of horror, heightening the perceived magnitude of disease risks. Given the level of fear evoked by the unusually violent symptoms associated with the viruses of The Hot Zone, I use the term dis-ease to describe the condition in which audience knowledge of pathogens like Ebola takes the form of an internalized horror of the microbial invasion of one's body. A telling comment by C. J. Peters, the famed virologist highlighted in both The Hot Zone and Outbreak, illuminates the profound emotional force of the fear even medical doctors experience at the contemplation of, much less exposure to, a virus like Ebola. The sheer number of Peters's references to "'the pucker factor,' an uncomfortable and unpleasant tightening of certain sphincter musculature" (Peters & Olshaker, 1997, p. 3), when discussing Ebola and other grisly diseases might be dismissed as an idiosyncrasy in the doctor's autobiography, but Peters's odd fascination with the phrase might alternatively be read as a testament to the rhetorical potential of the fear now indelibly inscribed like a palimpsest under the word Ebola. Several scholars have suggested that The Hot Zone and other killer-virus narratives further amplify fear in U.S. audiences by playing upon latent racist and xenophobic ideologies equating foreignness with danger. By repeatedly emphasizing the origin of microbial evil in the jungles of Africa, which is true of the Ebola virus but not all hemorrhagic fever agents and pure artifice in fictional accounts, many of these texts situate Ebola and similar yet fictitious viruses within "a long established discourse about Africa as the 'white man's grave'" (Haynes, 2002, p. 135; see also Dougherty, 2001; Wald, 2008, pp. 45-66).

The understanding of dis-ease as an internalized horror of biological weaponry, a product of bioterrorism discourse's activation of the myriad coordinates of its cultural map, requires a reconsideration of the theory of a public vocabulary in argumentation as it has been articulated to date. Condit (1990) acknowledges a range of rhetorical resources available to rhetors seeking to persuade an audience, but she then stipulates that separating argumentation as logical, enthymematic reasoning from emotive and stylistic "persuasion" is feasible. According to Condit (1990),

[p]ersuasion includes all non-argumentative tools that might influence an audience ...--emotional arousal, delivery, figures of style.... These persuasive devices function through the aestheticization of the association between beliefs, attitudes, or values. In contrast, argument uses such elements of discourse as the "claim," supported by compelling and related evidence (sometimes called "data" or "ground"), linked by a warranting general principle. (p. 10)

This theoretical dichotomy between argument and persuasion does offer some analytical benefit for the analysis of internal argument structure versus other sorts of rhetorical appeals, especially for different audiences, as Condit notes. And she explicitly eschews a privileging of logic over the "'mere persuasion'" of emotion and character as an unacceptably facile and political distinction, noting the frequent difficulty of separating "association-based persuasion" and "enthymematically based argumentation" to the extent that such a separation depends upon the critic's own assumptions about where the distinction between "partisan smokescreens" and reason lies (Condit, 1990, pp. 10-11). Yet, at least in the case of bioterrorism discourse, I discern a need to recognize the way in which the social meanings attached to the cultural map, derived from specifically emotional and figurative coordinates like The Hot Zone and similar "outbreak narrative[s]" (Wald, 2008, p. 2ff.), inf(1)ect the premises and reasoning of otherwise enthymematic arguments.

A close reading of all of the intertextual evocations of The Hot Zone and related virus narratives is beyond the scope of this essay, but a few examples may help to illustrate the extent to which such components of the U.S. cultural map inform public arguments about bioterrorism. Just one week after September 11, 2001, unquestionably the defining referent for terrorism in contemporary U.S. public memory, news media provide ample support for Porter's (1986) claim that "every discourse is composed of 'traces,' pieces of other texts that help constitute its meaning" (p. 35). On September 18, 2001, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings announced, "secretary of defense [Rumsfeld] said this week ... that a germ warfare attack anywhere could bring about loss of lives not in the thousands but in the millions" (as cited in Ross et al., 2001). Although millions of casualties are not outside the realm of possible consequences with highly infectious and communicable diseases such as smallpox, or the perfectly precise dispersal of an extremely deadly agent such as anthrax, the turn to bioterrorism for a worst-case scenario is most interesting for the simple fact that it demonstrates the incompleteness of September 11th as the premise of potential magnitude of terrorism. Even amid the lingering shock of the attack and still-burning ruins in the middle of New York City, that extraordinary event was only part of the text of terrorism. That same ABC coverage also relied upon several casual references to "the hot zone" when describing a training site for FBI, police, and firefighters expected to act as first responders in the event of a biological or chemical attack. Jennings's ventriloquism of Rumsfeld's statement certainly exemplifies media's penchant for drama noted at the beginning of this article. However, a more comprehensive account of that broadcast as public argumentation about the significance of the bioterror threat would recognize the invocation of the vocabulary of the hot zone as part of the cultural map through which the prospect of then as-yet unrealized bioterror was made compelling for U.S. audiences.

Other examples illustrate the necessity of accounting for the specifically argumentative premises of bioterrorism's magnitude and probability as established by the emotive and stylistic characterization of the Ebola virus. As Porter (1986) reminds us, "[t]he most mundane manifestation of intertextuality is explicit citation" (p. 34), and so critics should not restrict examples only to those that cite Preston or even the vocabulary of the hot zone explicitly. One interesting case is the Chicago Tribungs explanation in 1997 that "Iraqi scientists ... could in weeks or days brew up enough deadly anthrax and botulinum toxins to churn to a bloody pulp the insides of thousands of people" (Geezner and Sector, 1997, sec. 1 p. 1). The physiological inaccuracy of this description is the first clue to an apparently unwitting reliance on the Ebola-focused coordinates of the cultural map. Although anthrax infection does sometimes produce hemorrhagic symptoms, albeit nowhere near the extent of the Ebola virus, botulinum toxin causes death from respiratory paralysis (Bell, Kozarsky, & Stephens, 2002; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998, p. 11). No less deadly, botulinum toxin hardly involves "bloody pulp." The image fits perfectly, however, within the intertextual blurring of bioterrorism that includes the latent cultural coordinates already established by the popularity of The Hot Zone and its extensive descriptions of Ebola's grisly effects.

Perhaps more telling is the degree to which the horrifying destructiveness of Ebola has been so established in the minds of news audiences that journalists do not have to explain its magnitude. Less than a week after September 11, 2001, before the anthrax mailings, the Washington Post amplified the fear of potential bioterrorism by noting that the Aum Shinrikyo cult that had in 1995 successfully deployed sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway "even went to Zaire to learn more about the deadly ebola virus" (Weiss, 2001, p. A24). After the discovery of the anthrax mailings, apparently insufficient in their death toll to qualify fully the danger of bioterrorism, journalists continued to demonstrate the adequacy of even casual references to Ebola for conveying the magnitude of the danger. Time warned that "a single suicidal terrorist spraying a few drops of smallpox virus-or a liquid solution of Ebola or even plague-in a crowded mall or into the ventilation system of a large building could cause untold harm" (Golden, 2001, p. 45). Newsweek identified Ebola as high on the U.S. government's list of dangerous potential bioterror agents, but similarly did not bother to describe its symptoms (Cowley, 2001).

In all of the examples above, and countless others, the dis-ease of internalized horror allows core terms of bioterrorism's public vocabulary, such as Ebola and hot zone, to function enthymematically. The premise of bioterrorism as a hazard of enormous magnitude may be held entirely in the mind of the auditor through the metonymy of references to a single agent like Ebola. The extent of that danger is amplified by the emotive impact of intertextual associations to Preston's The Hot Zone and related coordinates on the cultural map, and so the analytical separation of stylistic features and emotional appeals from argumentation in Condit's (1990) theory of public vocabulary should be modified. Given the logical structure of the common risk equation described above, the impact of unstated premises regarding threat magnitude on the outcome of biodefense arguments can be significant. Specifically, the amplification of magnitude resulting from the emotionally charged horror of the viral abject skews public risk analysis and interpretation by the over-weighting of potential harm, making questions about the likelihood of occurrence mathematically irrelevant when seemingly infinite magnitude multiplied by even very low probability still equals a substantial risk.

In some cases, perceptions of the probability of the danger's occurrence may be inflated when the pathos of fear generated by the horror of the grisly symptoms popularized in media and cultural discourse about bioterrorism and infectious disease makes the event of bioterrorism seem always and already present (Ayotte, Bernard, & O'Hair, 2009). The experience of the representation of sublimely catastrophic disease effectively then functions, at least at the rhetorical level on which probability premises are advanced and evaluated, as a representing of the actual experience of bioterrorism. An example with obvious relevance to the premise of magnitude, but more interesting in terms of its enthymematic function of obviating the need to demonstrate the probability of use of particular bioterror agents, is the argument by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, that successful primate trials of an Ebola vaccine are "highly significant" "[i]n terms of what we need for countermeasures against terrorism" (as cited in Gillis, 2003, p. A1). The point is not to dispute the possibility that Ebola could be used as a weapon, but rather to highlight Fauci's use of the vocabulary of Ebola as part of an argumentative enthymeme rather than as simply emotive or figurative persuasion. Fauci's claim of the vaccine's high significance against the threat of terrorism merely rephrases what appears to be the logical conclusion of a complete risk analysis argument spanning the article as a whole, that the Ebola virus is a serious bioterrorism threat, despite the absence of an explicit articulation of the likelihood of bioterrorist deployment of Ebola. The article does state the magnitude of the risk, reporting a 90% mortality rate, the Soviet Union's alleged development of Ebola weapons, and the "gruesome" symptoms of the virus "dissolving ... [victims'] insides and sending blood oozing from nearly every orifice" (Gillis, 2003, p. A12), in addition to crediting Preston's The Hot Zone for Ebola's infamy. The probability premise of the traditional risk analysis equation remains unstated, either because the imminence of the hazard has become so real in the U.S. cultural map that it does not need to be articulated, or because the nearly infinite magnitude of the bioterrorism hazard conveyed by the emotive and stylistic elements of its intertextual associations simply mathematically overwhelms even an extremely low baseline probability. The news story reporting Fauci's claim can forego the offer of proof on the probability side of the risk equation by relying on the coordinates of bioterrorism's cultural map, either to fill in that premise or make it irrelevant. In this example, the prominence given to Ebola among other potential bioterrorism agents offers substantial evidence that, following a decade of books, films, and media coverage of natural outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever viruses, Ebola (and the lesser publicized Marburg virus) "may have, along with anthrax, the highest public profile of the [CDC's] Category A agents" (Clark, 2008, p. 52).


The goal of this article has been to explore the role of the cultural map of bioterrorism in shaping the meanings available for an array of public arguments ranging from political to public health advocacy about this threat. In the course of identifying Richard Preston's The Hot Zone as a key coordinate in the production of meanings around the phenomenon of bioterrorism, I have demonstrated the way in which the public vocabulary offered by this cultural map can impact risk argumentation by shaping magnitude and probability premises through the emotive and stylistic force of various intertextual associations. Preston's The Hot Zone cannot be identified as the sole basis for the intertextual meanings associated with bioterrorism, as there are multiple similar texts that appear in popular literature and film around the same time, but the best-selling status of The Hot Zone, Preston's resulting fame, and the recursive references to The Hot Zone by other authors demonstrate its significance. An extended analysis of argumentation surrounding a specific bioterrorism policy is beyond the scope of this article, but others have noted the policy direction for several issues imprinted on public deliberation by the perceived apocalyptic magnitude and high probability of bioterrorism.

One concern is that the fear-inflected focus of bioterror defenses on techno-scientific countermeasures like new vaccine and drug development will trade off with needed improvements to public health infrastructure (King, 2003). One survey of 539 health departments found that the crash smallpox vaccination campaign ordered by the Bush administration in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War caused 79 percent of those public health departments to divert staff and funding from other WMD defense initiatives and about half "'deferred, delayed or canceled'" (as cited in Connolly, 2003, p. A4) traditional public health duties such as prenatal care and childhood immunizations, HIV/AIDS prevention, and tuberculosis tracking. And, as described at the beginning of this article, public health campaigns focused on protection from bioterrorism may be compromised by the cultural knowledge of disease through which audiences make meaning out of the new information provided by officials during a crisis like the 2001 anthrax mailings. Other scholars have suggested that the urgency attributed to the threat of bioterrorism, largely a result of its perceived apocalyptic magnitude, may lead audiences to acquiesce to militaristic solutions in the face of perceived bioterror threats (Keranen, 2011b; Sandell, 1995). Although not entirely the result of perceptions about biological weapons, the official justification for the 2003 Iraq War based on the threat from weapons of mass destruction seems an obvious case demonstrating the need for more robust reflection on how people in the United States have come to understand the terror of biological weapons.

The unmasking of outright falsehoods and the presentation of counter-evidence to contradict inflated claims is unquestionably a necessary part of any strategy designed to prepare appropriately for biodefense, but sole reliance upon scientifically accurate information, as advocated by the CDC and many risk communication scholars, cannot comprise the entirety of the response. As Wright (2007) found, skepticism regarding the likelihood and impact of bioterror threats was voiced in the mid-1990s, but too often dismissed. Some skeptics, such as Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, noted in particular the problematic argument structure relied upon by so many alarmists, where a tendency to focus on the United States' theoretically infinite vulnerability to threats encourages a drift to worst-case scenarios (as cited in Wright, 2007, p. 97; see also Clark, 2008, pp. 156-159). The challenges faced by those in the news media who would confront alarmism were mentioned at the beginning of this essay; the motivations leading other advocates to amplify the bioterror threat strategically for political gain-to protect defense or biomedical industry spending, to divert public attention from the U.S. role in supplying pathogens and weapons technology to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, to win election through a security-focused campaign--are diverse, and again beyond the scope of this article. Serious engagement with these issues will demand a much more extended series of inquiries in the spirit of what Lisa Keranen (2011 a) has called "biocriticism" (p. 236). What is clear, however, is that addressing the production, interpretation, and possible responses to public arguments surrounding the threat of bioterrorism requires scholars to attend to the latent cultural maps that guide understandings of bioterrorism independent of any formal argument structures presented in a given context. Argumentation scholars can contribute to the prospect of more robust and critically reflexive public deliberation about the threat of bioterrorism through the rigorous interrogation of premises embedded, by explicit argument or popular culture, in public health and security discourses. Risk communicators must, in addition, adapt their advocacy to treat the texts of popular culture not as noise impeding the accurate interpretation of their messages but as an intrinsic part of the process through which audiences make sense of new information about disease. Over a decade old, Preston's The Hot Zone has achieved unusual prominence as a coordinate on the cultural map for interpreting the phenomenon of bioterrorism among U.S. audiences, and its significance will only expand as it moves from the status of popular leisure reading to a pedagogical tool for engaging junior high and high school students about science and medicine, complete with its own The Hot Zone Study Guide (Goldenkranz & Preston, 2004). None of this means, of course, that publics should not venture into The Hot Zone, and in fact the intertextuality of biodefense discourse makes exposure unavoidable, but all must do so with the critical engagement that will allow everyone to be a responsible audience for the text that is bioterrorism.


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Kevin J. Ayotte is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, California State University, Fresno. A small portion of this article is adapted from the author's dissertation, The Rhetoric of Terror: Weapons of Mass Destruction in American Foreign Policy Discourse (2003, University of of Pittsburgh), directed by John Poulakos. Parts of this project have been presented at the University of Colorado, Boulder, September 29, 2003, the 2006 National Communication Association Conference in San Antonio, TX,, and the 2011 Western States Communication Association Conference in Monterey, CA. The author would like to thank Catherine H. Palczewski, John Fritch, Lisa Keranen, John Poulakos, Gordon R. Mitchell, Carol A. Stabile, and the three anonymous reviewers for their invaluable suggestions. This project was supported by a Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activities Award from the California State University, Fresno. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kevin J. Ayotte, Department of Communication, California State University, Fresno, 5201 North Maple Avenue, M/S SA 46, Fresno, California 93740-8027. Email:

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Date:Jun 22, 2011
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