Lessons from World War Z: What “truth” do governments owe us?

When I first picked up Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z, I anticipated that I was about to read a 400-page novel explaining the ins and outs of zombies. I have seen my fair share of zombie films and am quite familiar with the standard plots. Typically in zombie films a group of people –– usually teenagers –– go somewhere and then they encounter zombies and must fight for their survival. However, from the outset, Max Brooks’ novel is different. First, rather than focusing on a small group of teenagers’ experience with zombies, Brooks’ novel explores the ways in which people and governments around the world are confronted by the un-dead. Second, in Brooks’ novel, the zombies come to the humans, rather than silly teenagers going to a part of town where they probably should not be, thus eliminating the possibility of readers simply dismissing the events by saying that the humans should not have sought out the zombies. Readers cannot immediately place blame on the humans for encountering zombies because the zombies came to them. Third, unlike the typical zombie movie, Brooks’ novel is about far more than fighting zombies. It stays true to intricate relationships between counties, like South Korea and North Korea, and is even rooted in real historical events and the ways governments have approached ‘handling’ pressing issues.

While reading World War Z, I was particularly struck by the sections that discuss the Phalanx drug. In promoting the use of Phalanx, an anti-rabies drug, the United States Government knowingly deceives the American public with a placebo in order to both prevent mass panic and help strengthen the U.S. economy. The slogan, “Piece of Phalanx, Peace of Mind,” (page 82) is essentially indoctrinated into American society. I understand that in times of crisis people are looking for a magic-bullet type solution (which is what the Phalanx was), but it seems morally wrong that capitalist entrepreneurs like Breckinridge Scott are able to profit enormously on giving the American public a false sense of security and that the U.S. Government promotes the Phalanx drug even though they “knew Phalanx was a placebo, and were grateful for it [because Phalanx] calmed people down and let [them] do [their] job” (page 75). Former White House chief of staff, Grover Carlson, even admits to pushing Phalanx through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The American people should be able to have confidence that the FDA will serve its mission to protect U.S. public health and monitor the safety of food and drugs in the U.S., free from any political agenda.

Similarly, the Phalanx issue reminds me of the 1951 U.S. Civil Defense Bert the Turtle, “Duck and Cover” film shown to children in the 1950s during the Cold War. The 10-minute cartoon video provides instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. It explains that children should hide under their desks at school and should practice the duck and cover technique under desks, chairs, or tables –– all while a light-hearted and catchy song plays in the background of the video. In an effort to calm anxieties about a possible nuclear attack, the video compares a nuclear explosion to fire drills, car accidents, and really bad sunburns. However, in the event of a real nuclear attack, it is highly unlikely that hiding under a table would save someone’s life.

In both the Phalanx and “Duck and Cover” instances, the government is providing Americans with a false sense of security in an effort to prevent mass panic. Keeping the public calm is not in and of itself morally wrong. Indeed, governments have a duty to maintain the security of their countries and preventing mass panic certainly falls under the umbrella of security. So, in a democratic system like the U.S., is it the general American public’s responsibility to hold their government accountable and ensure that the information the government is providing is true to the best of their knowledge? Or, in the name of national security, should the government be able to rightfully justify knowingly withholding or even providing false information to the American people?



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