Alumni Profile: Leonard Cole

October 11, 2021

M.A. ’65, Ph.D. ’70, Political Science

How and why did you come to study political science at Columbia?

Since my teens I’ve had a keen interest in both science and public affairs. After receiving a B.A. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, I returned (for family reasons) to northern New Jersey. Attracted by Columbia’s reputation for all-around excellence, I pursued graduate studies in its Department of Political Science (then called the Department of Public Law and Government).

Of all the skills and expertise you acquired and the relationships you developed during your time at Columbia, what part of the experience do you consider to have been the most valuable for your professional life? Are there any specific learning experiences (classes, professors, research, extracurricular activities) that made a particular impression on you?

Beyond providing exposure to great professors and talented fellow-students, my Columbia experience markedly enriched my writing skills. I have no doubt that the numerous papers I wrote during those years enhanced my ability to create, organize, and produce my subsequent articles and books.

While enrolled at Columbia I was a commuter and my campus time was largely limited to class attendance and library use. I enjoyed cordial relationships with several professors, including J.C. Hurewitz, who was my master’s thesis adviser. My thesis was on Japan’s constitutional renunciation of war. Although a Middle East expert, Hurewitz’s vast knowledge enabled him to provide skillful guidance on the Japan issue. I also much appreciated the support offered by Ira Katznelson who was my dissertation sponsor. He started advising by mail from England before arriving in person at Columbia. When we began our correspondence, he was still completing his own Ph.D. studies at the University of Cambridge.

You are a pioneer of a relatively new discipline within the United States, “terror medicine.” Could you talk a little bit about the origin of the field? What does terror medicine encompass?

Terror medicine overlaps with emergency and disaster medicine, but also bears a singular focus on preparedness, incident management, nature of injuries, and psychological effects. Its emergence as a distinctive field began in Israel about ten years ago during a period of heightened Palestinian terrorism. While developing an earlier book on how Israel has coped with terrorism, I met several Israeli health professionals and have since collaborated with some of them in further developing the field. (I hold a doctorate in dental medicine in addition to my Ph.D. in political science.)

Your latest book, Local Planning for Terror and Disaster: From Bioterrorism to Earthquakes, published by Wiley-Blackwell last year, resulted from discussions at a series of symposia for terror medicine that you coordinated at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which involved experts in the field from Israel, the United States, and around the globe. Who do you hope to reach with this book and what lessons do you wish to impart?

This book (co-edited with Nancy Connell, a colleague at UMDNJ, where I direct the Program on Terror Medicine and Security) should interest both professionals and lay people. Anyone could find him or herself in a position to help during a terror or disaster event. With that possibility in mind, the book includes chapters on the potential roles of bystanders, survivors, and volunteers, as well as the roles played by physicians, paramedics, police, and other professionals.

In your book, you stress the need to prepare for “black swan” events: contingencies that are not only unlikely, but possibly even unknowable. How can responder groups and society as a whole undertake the seemingly paradoxical task of preparing for the unforeseeable?

My book describes several “black swan” events including 9/11 (airline hijackers bent on crashing into buildings), the 2001 anthrax attacks (infective spores released from mailed letters), and the 2011 Japanese tsunami (waves far taller than anticipated). Preparedness for each of these events was wanting because they fell outside the range of expected scenarios. Poor understanding then led to inadequate responses and loss of life.

Of course we cannot rehearse for every manner of event, whether of deliberate, accidental or natural cause. But while taking past experience into account, exercises should also occasionally include unexpected challenges. Posing an improbable scenario will expand the mindset of a responder and better prepare him to deal with unanticipated contingencies. Circumventing existing protocols is not a trivial matter, but a responder should understand that in some situations, rigid conformity could be counterproductive. Recognizing what to do differently, and when, is a matter of judgment. Appropriate exercises can sharpen that judgment by providing opportunities to test various options.

In each of the cited improbable events—9/11, the anthrax attacks, the tsunami—interventions that would have bypassed existing practices and protocols could have lessened the damage.

How can bystanders aid in the immediate response to a terror or disaster event, and how can government agencies and responder groups make use of bystanders?

Bystanders and uninjured survivors could perform a variety of important functions: reporting the event, helping to triage casualties, caring for the walking wounded, assisting in traffic control, strengthening security, and evacuating casualties to medical facilities. Some of these chores could begin prior to the arrival of professional responders, which could take several minutes or much longer. Unfortunately, bystander assistance is not part of disaster planning in some jurisdictions, although it should be.

Many civic and faith-based groups offer disaster relief training for volunteers. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program is an especially valuable source of training for volunteers. CERTs, which exist throughout the country, largely comprise volunteers who meet regularly to review their roles and receive updates from professional responders. See

You recently testified on WMD nonproliferation and terror preparedness before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. How did your research and your training in political science and public health inform your testimony before the subcommittee?

I have been teaching, researching, and writing about terrorism issues, especially bioterrorism, for more than 25 years. Early last year, I was invited to serve on the Aspen Institute’s working group on WMD Terrorism. Having helped write and edit the working group’s recent report, I was asked to present our findings at a November hearing of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

In the paper you presented to the Subcommittee, you not only recommend domestic security initiatives to prevent terrorism, but you also suggest that international nonproliferation efforts will need to be strengthened. To what extent does it make sense to use a public health framework to think about terror prevention, preparedness, and response, and to what extent is it necessary to think about the issue in terms of the more traditional frames of international politics and global security?

Preventing the use of biological and chemical weapons is in the interest of both public health and global security, and for many, is also a moral imperative. An apt observation has been made that biological terrorism is public health in reverse. As I wrote in response to follow-up questions posed by the committee chairman, “It is no more possible to completely eliminate bioterrorism as a threat than to completely eliminate infectious disease. That said, bio-threats can certainly be reduced and become less appealing to would-be perpetrators.”

I see four distinct approaches to reducing the bioterrorism threat. First: further develop medical countermeasures (antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines, etc.), as underscored in the Aspen Working Group report. Second: establish uniform security requirements for laboratories and institutions that work on select agents (i.e., pathogens deemed to be the most consequential threat agents). The CDC’s recently revised select agent list includes steps in this direction. Third: severely punish groups or states that take steps to develop such weapons. Fourth: strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This international agreement bans bioweapons and describes their use as “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Highlighting this moral norm is of value. Even those without moral qualms about using bioweapons could be deterred by the realization that such behavior could lessen support for their cause.

Your working group on WMD attack preparedness concluded that a terrorist group is more likely to use biological weapons than nuclear weapons in a potential attack on the United States. Why is a terrorist group more likely to use biological weapons? What can the United States do to prevent and improve preparedness for a biological attack? What special challenges does a biological attack present with regard to prevention and response?

A biological weapon is far less expensive, easier to acquire, and less complex to use [than a nuclear weapon], but still could cause massive damage. In a worst-case scenario a bio-attack could be devastating. If a microorganism is contagious, highly lethal, persistent, and resistant to available drugs and other treatments it could kill millions—which is what happened in past centuries during outbreaks of plague, smallpox, and other diseases. Antibiotics, antivirals, and vaccinations now can offer protection against many bacteria and viruses, but not all.

What motivates you to stay involved with the Graduate School of Arts and Science Alumni Association? What are your goals for your time on the board?

My board activity is a tacit expression of appreciation for my Columbia education. My fellow board members, an interesting mix with varied academic and professional backgrounds, are a pleasure to work with. My principal goal during my time on the board has been one that I believe is held as well by the other members: to strengthen Columbia’s position as a world-class university.

— Interview conducted by Dylan Suher