Bibles and Bioweapons
The congressional race in Central Texas’ 17th District should be an easy pickup for the GOP. The district—represented by Democrat Chet Edwards—stretches from the Fort Worth suburbs through Waco to Bryan-College Station, and includes President Bush’s ranch in Crawford. Republicans comprise 64 percent of the registered voters. And the Republican challenger, Van Taylor, is a dream GOP candidate. He holds an MBA from Harvard, served four years in the U.S. Army, then enlisted in the Marine Reserves and volunteered for service in Iraq, where he won three combat citations. But Taylor is discovering what many Republican predecessors already know—beating Edwards is no easy task. Edwards was one of the few targeted Democrats to survive Tom DeLay’s 2004 congressional redistricting plan [see “Storming the Hill,” October 22, 2004]. Edwards, an eight-term incumbent, has called out Taylor for moving into the district in 2005 to run for office. In a race that’s increasingly nasty, Edwards has a $500,000 fundraising edge, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s also earned endorsements from GOP stalwarts such as the Texas Farm Bureau, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Texas Association of Business.
Then there was Taylor’s August 22 turn on Hardball with Chris Matthews. (The clip has been making the rounds on the Web at www.youtube.com). We’re guessing Taylor wasn’t debate club champion in high school. When pressed by host Matthews, Taylor refused to let the facts get in the way of a good talking point about the very war he fought in. Taylor contended—contrary to media reports—that Al Qaeda terrorists are mainly responsible for violence in Iraq, not, say, Shiite death squads or Sunni insurgents. Taylor did concede that Iraq wasn’t involved in the September 11th attacks. That set Matthews off.
Matthews: “So why did we attack Iraq then?”
Taylor: “Regardless of why we started fighting…”
Matthews: “I’m asking the question, why did we attack Iraq?”
Taylor: “We… that’s not the question. What we need to ask ourselves is what we do now.”
Matthews: “What’s wrong with me asking the question? We’re in a war… Why’d we go into Iraq?”
“That is a question you can ask historians,” Taylor said, and added with no apparent irony, “but right now, today, we need to send people to Washington who understand the war on terror.”
Taxpayer Sunday School
Along with reading and writing and arithmetic, the Bible is being offered in about two dozen Texas school districts these days, and the students are getting a healthy dose of fundamentalist propaganda and outright disinformation—courtesy of the taxpayers, of course. For example, did you know that God intervened in the French and Indian War to save George Washington’s life? Or that sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, divorces, and violent crime can be directly attributable to the advocacy of separation of church and state?
That bunkum and more is being taught to some high school students who sign up for an elective, for-credit Bible class, according to an in-depth survey sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit that monitors activities of the religious right. Authored by Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the report looked at more than 1,000 public school districts in Texas, focusing on 25 that offered the Bible class during the 2005-06 school year. Through the Texas Public Information Act, the organization obtained syllabi, lesson plans, copies of tests, quizzes and handouts. Not surprisingly, the group found that some teachers are using the Bible courses to promote “creation science” and “Dominion Theology,” that is, the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation—make that an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian nation—and should remain one. Adherents of this school of thought include such luminaries as David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, who argue that the Protestant Bible served as the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
In the Forsan Independent School District, near Big Spring, students watched videos, including one called “Dinosaurs and the Bible,” which sought to show “agreement with Biblical record and paleontological discoveries.” A second video, “Eden and 800 Year Old Men,” explored the question of whether there are “possible scientific explanations for long-lived humans in biblical times.”
The report went on to say that most school districts who teach Bible courses use sectarian materials reflecting a Protestant Christian perspective, present the Bible as a product of divine inspiration, and discuss the Bible stories as if they were literally true. Though only 3 percent of Texas school districts actually offer a Bible class, the study notes that the number is growing.
Four sites in Texas—three in San Antonio and one at Texas A&M-College Station—are in the running for a gargantuan, $500 million “biodefense” facility offered by the Department of Homeland Security. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility will be a hot spot in America’s growing archipelago of semi-clandestine laboratories researching exotic diseases and potential biological weapons agents, including anthrax, West Nile Virus, Ebola, and the plague.
“[I]f San Antonio was to land this thing it would become the number two national center for classified biological work,” says Edward Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit that monitors biological weapons. Hammond fears that the new facility will feature work on weaponization of germs and dangerously unpredictable genetic engineering projects. Jean Patterson, chairman of the Department of Virology and Immunology at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, sharply disagrees: “It’s not clear what level of classification the work will be or if it will be classified at all. The whole point is to protect our agriculture, our livestock, and to protect us against zoonotic diseases like SARS.”
Hammond recently obtained, through state open records laws, draft proposals for the facility submitted by a consortium of San Antonio universities and bioscience institutions, led by the University of Texas Health Science Center, UT-San Antonio, and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, an independent institute. (A request for Texas A&M’s proposal is on appeal with the state attorney general.)
The facility’s centerpiece will be a set of laboratories for scientific work to “integrate human, foreign animal, and zoonotic disease research, development, and testing,” according to Patterson. In addition to space to warehouse livestock, primates, and other critters to be infected with deadly diseases, the facility will contain a large, Biosafety Level 4 laboratory. BSL-4s are designed to handle pathogens that have no known cure, including genetically modified germs. The Southwest Foundation already boasts the only privately operated BSL-4 in the nation, where, as the documents Hammond obtained show, researchers—20 of whom have secret level security clearances—are involved in such projects as testing anthrax on military hardware and genetically tinkering with the viruses that cause Lassa fever, an animal-borne disease found in Africa. Hammond argues that these examples of “bio-defense” work are pushing the edge between useful research on terrorism and public health threats, and offensive arms work in possible violation of international law. “[I]f the Chinese were doing this, we would say, ‘Bullshit, you’re not looking for a vaccine; you’re trying to create a worse kind of Lassa fever.'”
A River Runs to it
Matagorda Bay, a largely undeveloped stretch of water on the Texas middle coast, breeds bumper crops of speckled trout, redfish, and flounder—highly sought-after game fish that forage on the shrimp and pinfish that swarm out of the brackish estuaries. Economic impact from fishing in Matagorda Bay is an estimated $180 million annually, according to a 1998 Texas A&M study. Migratory birds flock to the marshlands to forage, nest, and breed; the Audubon Society cites Matagorda County as one of the most diverse birding sites in the country. Freshwater from rivers, in Matagorda’s case the Colorado, sustains the health and productivity of Texas’ bays and estuaries, but increasingly a coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, and members of the tourism economy are worried about the allocation of river water for the bays.
One project in particular has become a flashpoint for green criticism and perhaps a bellwether of things to come: The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) plans to redirect 48.9 billion gallons of water each year from the Colorado River, already the major source of water for Austin, to San Antonio by pipeline. The LCRA-SAWS team is spending $42 million studying whether the project can meet the Texas Legislature’s mandate that remaining inflows be “adequate to maintain the ecological health and productivity of the Matagorda Bay system.” At a September water conference in San Antonio sponsored by the Sierra Club, LCRA’s Paul Thornhill promised that without a positive finding, the project would not go forward. But, he added, the project will likely be a “win-win” and result in a net increase in water flowing to Matagorda Bay by conserving river water used by rice farmers.
Environmentalists are not content with a wait-and-see approach. Instead of spending $1.5 billion on the LCRA-SAWS project, they urge river authorities and cities to invest in urban conservation programs, store river water in aquifers during times of plenty for use in times of drought, and improve agricultural techniques. Even if the LCRA-SAWS pipeline is not built, they contend that without an aggressive conservation approach, the future for Matagorda Bay and other coastal ecosystems doesn’t look bright. A 2004 report, issued by the National Wildlife Federation, assigned five of the seven major estuary systems in Texas a ‘danger’ warning, based on a future in which 100 percent of currently authorized water rights are used. “It’s like a checkbook, these water rights,” said Norman Johns, a water resources specialist with the wildlife group. “We’ve already written a lot of checks, and they haven’t all been written yet.”