The War on Cancer and the War on Terror – what they have in common (1/3/12)
Historians often view wars as ending with winners and losers. We “won” World War II – and the Germans and Japanese lost.
In most human conflicts results are less clear-cut.
People don’t tend to think of the “War on Cancer” – started by President Nixon – and the “War on Terror” – begun by the second President Bush – as operating in the same mental realms. Yet both involve shifting enemies, changing allies, and strategies that often appear to succeed before they fail. Both may become more controllable once we see their broad similarities.
Here are a few common traits:
1. Terrorist individuals and groups, like cancer cells, frequently form anew.
The average human DNA strand may be attacked hundreds of times an hour. A few chemical and physical assaults may lead to mutations that lead to tumors – as can changes to proteins.
Yet most of the time the immune system snuffs them out.
Extremist thinking is common, and so are extremist groups. Countries like the US and Britain have hundreds of thousands of “people of interest” to security services.
Most will never plan an attack – no matter how much they talk about one. And many that are planned are stopped because enough outside individuals find out about them. They stop it themselves – as occurs in families and close-knit communities – or alert political and security personnel who do.
2. Terrorists can appear pretty much anywhere – just like cancer cells.
Some human cells – particularly those involved in the fast regenerating arenas like prostate and breast – may prove more cancerous than other tissue types. However any tissue group can form tumors – though some, like bone, tend to have less of them.
Terrorist individuals and groups exist everywhere. Virtually no one expected Norway to experience the major European terrorist attack of 2011. Yet Anders Breivik showed anyplace can experience terrorism – even on a vast scale.
3. The healthier a population, the later clinical tumors start to appear; the more generally harmonious, egalitarian, and open a society, the less terrorist incidents tend to occur.
The Japanese smoke like fiends and often work long hours and shifts. They are also the longest lived nation in the world.
Americans stood transfixed following the Fukushima tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster. The Japanese did not riot or loot, but worked cooperatively.
There are few terrorist incidents in Japan.
Civil wars – like those in Afghanistan and Iraq – often involve many operations of seemingly indiscriminate mass murder. Terrorism thrives in highly sectarian, unequal societies – places where people don’t live quite so long even when violent deaths are subtracted from the statistics.
4. Tumors appear and often simultaneously regress – extremist groups often appear and then dissolve.
It’s now thought that innumerable tumors form a single cell or small group of cells – and then either self destruct, get killed by the immune system, or are somehow “walled off”.
Even much larger tumors spontaneously regress.
Data on breast cancer from Norway, discussed by H. Gilbert Welch in his book “Overdiagnosis,” only make sense if many mammographically apparent tumors regress on their own – and do so frequently.
Many extremist groups forms with violent goals. Yet often they go nowhere.
Sledge Hammers, Surgical Strikes, and Containment
The Bush “War on Terror” fully got going with the invasion of Iraq. A brutal dictator and his large stock of terror weapons would be violently extinguished as democracy was established freeing tens of millions.
It did not work out as planned.
In the 1950s and 1960s, new chemotherapeutic agents transformed oncology. Physicians could do more than just cut out tumors – or burn them out with radiation. The new, highly toxic agents which chemically “bombed” tumors represented a new watershed – promoting great optimism. President Nixon stated in his State of the Union message of 1971 that he would begin a war on cancer that would be recognized as the most significant act of his administration, bringing a cure within decades.
It did not work out as planned.
The “War on Terror” continues. Iraq and Afghanistan remain physically and economically devastated, with politically fragile regimes.
The War on Cancer continues. Forty years on, vastly more is known about cancer formation and treatment. Yet the human survival for the most common tumors has not changed appreciably – even if earlier detection occurs.
Complexity, Cancer, and Terrorism
Human societies are so complex many aspects of them are poorly understood. The “science” of economics may win Nobel prizes but does not prevent international financial meltdowns. What foments terrorist groups appears to involve an intricate interplay of politics, culture, ideology, social alienation, economics, family life and personality.
The human body is vastly complex. When the Human Genome project was started it was expected that we would find the “gene” for schizophrenia, or the few “major genes” provoking major tumors.
Instead we got a map of hundreds of genetic markers that increased the rates of common illnesses by 1-5%.
Complexity is the order of the day. Cancer starts through the interlocking of dozens of cellular systems and is controlled by hundreds more. A few systems may be partly understood. Others – like the immune effects of the tens of trillions of other organisms within our bodies – remain black boxes.
Similarly, police and security forces have recognized the deep interplay of culture and community, personality and social connection that gives rise to extremist groups – and to their dissension and dissolution.
When George Kennan wrote about the Soviet Union in his famous essay of 1946, he argued not for continuing military wars but for containment, a complex strategy engaging diplomacy, economics, culture and ideology as the way to stop Stalin.
When it comes to cancer, containment seems to be what the body normally does.
The complexity of the issues represented by terrorism and cancer is vast. Yet controlling each may require less than perfect understanding.
The key remains information – seeing how systems form, shape, and reform themselves – whether they are tumor cells or terrorist groups.
And our greatest new ally may be information science – artificial brains working in combination with our own.
The “cure” to cancer may first occur not in the biological but the information laboratory. Modeling how the different elements of immunity operate – in the brain and other organs – may be enough to contain many tumors, converting them into chronic, primarily controllable conditons.
Similar work in complex information modeling should also prove increasingly useful in the political arena. Many argued after 9/11 to treat terrorism not through “wars” that would give terrorists greater public status but through police actions.
More are listening to that argument today.
And societies that are more egalitarian, open, and democratic generally do suffer less from extremist acts – though extremist ideologues are tolerated – within set limits.
It’s easier to prevent cancer than to treat it. Similar options should motivate political leaders in the fight against terrorism.
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