Thursday, October 20, 2005

What kind of fascist oppressive regime won't let a man experiment with the materials required for germ warfare

in the privacy of his own dingy, corpse-ridden flat?

The Guardian gives us this jaw-droppingly absurd story:

On May 11 2004 Steve Kurtz awoke to find his wife dead beside him. He would come to refer to this date as "5/11"; it was the day his life took a Kafkaesque turn. When paramedics arrived at his house in Buffalo, New York State, they noticed a makeshift laboratory on an upstairs landing, with an incubator full of toxic-looking bacteria, and alerted the police.

Kurtz assured them his lab was, in effect, his studio; that he was an internationally recognised artist, as well as an art professor at the University at Buffalo, who used molecular biology in his work…. They thought I'd germed her to death," Kurtz says. An autopsy later showed that Hope, his partner of 27 years, had died of heart failure in her sleep.

The day after the death, however, when Kurtz returned from the funeral home, three car-loads of FBI agents were waiting for him. He was now suspected of bio-terrorism. His house was quarantined with yellow police tape. In what became a media spectacle ("Bioterrorism Blunder?" asked NBC news), five regional branches of the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defence, the Buffalo police, fire department, and state marshall's office swarmed over Kurtz's home. They were protected by white chemical suits and wore breathing apparatus…..

Last June a federal grand jury was convened to evaluate bio-terrorism charges against Kurtz. He was indicted, but not under the biological weapons anti-terrorism act. He and Robert Ferrell, a professor of human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, were charged with mail and wire fraud, accused of colluding to illegally furnish Kurtz with $256 (£146) of harmless bacterial cultures. The crime carries a sentence of up to 20 years. Kurtz's lawyer, Paul Cambria (who defended pornographer Larry Flynt against obscenity charges), is arguing the case should be thrown out of court. The government's "paranoid over-reaction" is, he says, a political attack on Kurtz's subversive art.

The artistic community has rallied to the cause, staging protests and organising an auction - with work donated by 50 artists, including Richard Serra, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelly and Sol LeWitt - that raised $170,000 (£97,000) for his defence. His case has not yet come to trial but Kurtz has already become, as the New York Times put it, "an unlikely art world martyr-hero". Perhaps, as a sticker on his fridge puts it, he might be better described as a "prisoner of art".

In 1986, Kurtz and his wife co-founded Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a small artists' collective "dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics and critical theory".

In CAE's most recent manifesto, Molecular Invasion, Kurtz encourages his readers to carry out other acts of "fuzzy biological sabotage". "The fuzzy saboteur," the book declares, "has to stand on that ambiguous line between the legal and the illegal (both criminally and civilly), in areas that have not yet been fully regulated." The reader is advised to avoid direct sabotage, such as arson, in favour of "pranks". Cues are taken from the CIA - their lacing of Fidel Castro's cigars with LSD is considered model behaviour. One idea is to release genetically mutated and deformed flies in biotech research facilities and nearby restaurants to stir up paranoia.

When the FBI raided his house, Kurtz was researching the history of germ warfare for a new project. He was growing simple types of bacterial cultures, routinely used in high-school biology classes, that could also be used to simulate the mushrooming of anthrax and plague.

Over some steak Kurtz tells me that his persecutors "have to have something to show for the millions of dollars they've spent on this. They're trying to create a kind of hysteria, a horrible kind of vigilantism. It's right out of Hitler's handbook. The final goal is to silence and intimidate voices of dissent."

Ah yes, the good old ‘Bushitler’ argument.

When such prize boobies as Steve Kurtz say things like "it's right out of Hitler's handbook", and "the final goal is to silence and intimidate voices of dissent", not only does he defeat his own argument merely by the fact that he can state it, but he insults the memories of the thousands of people who really did die or suffer because of Nazism, and the millions more today who genuinely live under tyranny and repression.

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