This memoir by a soldier of a different kind made me appreciate all the people who protect us from harm every day. As a retired FBI agent I am well aware how government officials and employees are sometimes revered without good reason but just as often disparaged, resented, or even reviled for being less than impossibly perfect. Dr. Khan is one of those adventurous epidemiologists who has spent a career charging into Ebola-infested regions of Africa, SARS hotbeds in Asia, and, closer to home, outbreaks of West Nile Virus, hantavirus, and many other threatening diseases here in the U.S. The book will fascinate anyone with an interest in science in general and the excitement and challenges of medical field work in particular. We all owe a great debt to Dr. Khan and his colleagues.
Most interesting to me, largely because of the FBI involvement, was his account of the anthrax attacks that hit Washington D.C., some media outlets, and a few other spots in the U.S. in 2001 right after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. I have no qualms in saying the FBI bungled that investigation from day 1, while I still maintain that it is the finest law enforcement agency in the world. Khan is a Muslim American and was placed under suspicion briefly at an airport, an incident he recounts with surprisingly good humor, but the real miscarriage of justice was how the FBI quickly focused their investigation on an innocent scientist named Hatfill, who worked only with viruses (anthrax is a bacterium, not a virus), while allowing the actual perpetrator, an anthrax expert named Ivins, to inject himself into the investigation. It took seven years for them to finally come down hard on Ivins, who promptly committed suicide once they got the goods on him. He was clearly mentally disturbed yet held a sensitive position at a military base in bioweapons research. The author justifiably jabs the FBI hard, but later in the book describes the many missteps that various elements in the medical and public health infrastructure have made in many if not all of the outbreaks described. The reality is that when you don’t know the who, what, or how of some crisis, it’s easy to make mistakes and neither doctors nor FBI agents are immune. In all these cases, though, eventually the government agencies managed to contain the problem, whether criminal or epidemiological.
That’s something else I really appreciated about the book. He skewers so many myths, rumors, and outright lies about various epidemics or outbreaks that it makes one wonder if we can believe anything the news agencies report. Scary headlines or TV teasers bring readers and viewers so even the most ludicrous rumors get trumpeted without checking. I’ve certainly seen my share of inaccurate reporting about the FBI cases I worked.
The writing is very readable and lighthearted in style without seeming patronizing or lacking in seriousness. The tribulations of travel to and in third world countries is the subject of many humorous anecdotes. Khan has a ghost writer, William Patrick, who in this case is given credit on the front cover and even a photo credit on the inside back flap, something I like to see. As a writer myself I know that having a good story is not enough in an of itself; one needs good writing skills to make it come alive for the reader. Patrick deserves credit for a top-notch job. I greatly enjoyed this book.