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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

kurtz isn’t a terrorist, but we’ll charge him with something

[this is a follow-up to check your art supplies and, to a lesser degree, art attack]

the news today is that the grand jury did, indeed, hand down indictments against steven kurtz and an associate, robert ferrel. that means it’s time for me to go on a little rant.

first, the report….

An unconventional artist who became the target of a federal terrorism investigation and a cause celebre in the world art community was indicted Tuesday on charges he illegally obtained biological materials.

now, i do mean to get off on a rant here, and that basically has to do with the myraid laws we have in this society now. once you’ve attracted the interest of a prosecutor, i’m willing to bet that we can find some law you’ve broken and get at least as far as an indictment.

so, it looks to me like this is simply a case where the local police panicked a little (how ironic that i should put that up just as the news was breaking on the wires…) and called in the bioterror team. i’m not going to find fault in that at all. funky test tubes, odd things growing in laboratory glassware… sure. call in the professionals.

then the trouble starts – now we’ve gotten everyone’s attention. we’ve had the house taped off and guys in biohazard suits running around the neighborhood for a while, so something must be wrong here, and someone has to be held to account.

and then the backlash – the art community, people that know this kurtz guy pretty well, start doing what they do best – social commentary. they effectively take the patriot act provisions and terrorism laws out-of-play. it would look really bad to call this guy a terrorist with all this attention focused on him, but it would look even worse to just admit that it was a false alarm – worse for someone’s career. so we need to nail him for something. surely, there’s something we can get this guy on….

and the answer is, apparently, is that “he illegally obtained potentially harmful biological materials.” (he’s probably also jaywalked and exceeded the speed limit, but that’s not part of this investigation yet…)

harmful biological materials

i needed to emphasize that for a moment, because the ap story has some information on what these harmful biological materials are…

The organisms sent to Ferrell for Kurtz, the indictment said, were serratia marcescens, which can sicken some people under some circumstances, and bacillus atrophaeus, also known as bacillus globigii.

so, let’s do some homework…

serratia marcescens [state university of new york]

Habitat: Occurs naturally in soil and water as well as the intestines.

Pathogenicity: Important as a nocosomial infection; associated with urinary and respiratory tract infections, endocarditis, osteomyelitis, septicemia, wound infections, eye infections, meningitis.

Transmission: direct contact, droplets; has been found growing on catheters, in saline irrigation solutions, and in other supposedly sterile solutions.

Treatment: Includes cephalosporins, gentamicin, amikacin, but most strains are resistant to several antibiotics because of the presence or R-factors on plasmids.

We used to think that this bacteria was non-pathogenic, and because of the pigment it produces, it was used widely to trace bacterial transmission. In 1951 and 1952 the US Army conducted a study called “Operation Sea-Spray” to study wind currents that might carry biological weapons. They filled balloons with S. marcescens and burst them over San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, doctors noted a drastic increase in pneumonia and urinary tract infections.

Definition of Bacillus globigii [webster’s dictionary]

a species of Bacillus found in soil and decomposing organic matter; some strains produce antibiotics

yeah. technically, i guess these could be harmful biological materials, but then again, check your medicine cabinet for this stuff… Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern

having failed at the grand jury stage, now i guess we have to rely on the wisdom of a jury, and steven kurtz has to waste a decent chunk of his life for his art. oh, and the lawyers get paid, of course.

for more on this story before the indictment, there’s Genetic art crosses line, says FBI from the boston globe. i suspect this is going to get plenty of attention once people in america wake up…

other important links: Email from artist suspected by FBI of bioterrorism, cae defense fund

posted by roj at 4:50 am