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Tad Daley: Watered-Down Terror
Posted on Aug 22, 2006
By Tad Daley
NUCLEAR DETERRENCE AND NUCLEAR TERROR
This leads to the second paramount truth about modern terror. The United States, after all, has vast military capabilities, including thousands of nuclear weapons of unimaginable destructive power. So does Great Britain, for that matter. So does Israel, for that matter. Surely, these bristling nuclear arsenals will deter anyone from launching a nuclear attack on these respective countries, won’t they?
Of course not.
Because Al Qaeda is not the agent of any state. Bin Laden does not control any territory. (Paradoxically, this is even more true after we destroyed Al Qaeda’s infrastructure and base of operations in Afghanistan ... and dispersed its leaders and operatives widely.) It is unclear at this hour whether the London liquid bombers were acting under the close direction or merely the inspiration of Al Qaeda, but no one has suggested that they were acting on behalf of any government. These terrorists are non-state actors. And all our military power combined can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to deter a non-state actor.
This is the crucial difference between someone like Bin Laden and someone like the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For all the current turmoil about the possibility that Iran might someday acquire a few nuclear warheads, Ahmadinejad could never actually employ a nuclear weapon without committing both personal and national suicide.
But Bin Laden does not face such a constraint. Because there is no place to threaten to retaliate against. There is nothing to rain down any retaliation upon. In the realm of modern terror, traditional theories of deterrence become inapplicable, hollow and meaningless.
Actually, it gets worse. It is not only that our own bloated nuclear armory does nothing to protect us from nuclear terror. Our arsenal of the apocalypse, on the contrary, makes apocalyptic terror much more likely to occur.
Why? Because our nuclear weapons serve continuously as an incitement for others to seek (or to retain) their own nuclear weapons—leading inexorably to a world with 10, 15, 25 nuclear weapon states. Because we will never be able to impose strict controls over the nuclear activities of others if we are not willing to impose any kinds of restrictions on ourselves. And because as long as nuclear weapons exist, it’s only a matter of time before just one ends up in the wrong hands at the wrong place at the wrong time. How many more wakeup calls do we need?
The U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force didn’t protect us on 9/11—nor did they deter the London liquid bombers. Our 13 aircraft carrier battle groups (no other country has even one) didn’t protect us on 9/11—nor did they deter the London liquid bombers. Our more than 10,000 nuclear warheads didn’t protect us on 9/11—nor did they deter the London liquid bombers.
Nor will they deter the nuclear terrorists.
What are we going to do, fire a nuclear cruise missile through the balcony window of their $750-a-month bachelor apartment in Las Vegas?
The Los Angeles office of my organization, the Nobel Peace Laureate anti-nuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility, conducted a study several years ago projecting the results of an atomic warhead the size of the Hiroshima bomb—about 15 kilotons—detonating at noon on a weekday in downtown Los Angeles. We concluded that 117,000 would perish instantly, 15,000 more would die within a few hours and 96,000 would slowly wither away after that, victims of the deadly radioactive fallout.
Now, on Aug. 15, the RAND Corporation released a new study calculating the consequences of a 10-kiloton device exploding on a pier at Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor, which handles fully a third of America’s imports. They concluded that 60,000 would die at once, 150,000 would be exposed to hazardous radiation, 2 million or 3 million would have to relocate because their homes would be hopelessly contaminated, and vast economic costs would cascade throughout the global economy for years thereafter. (The World Bank concluded that the comparatively minuscule 9/11 attacks cost the world economy $80 billion, and cast no less than 10 million people into poverty. And the Royal Institute of International Affairs, apparently defining “cost” more broadly, found that the burden of 9/11 just on the United States was at least $500 billion.)
If these studies don’t worry you enough, recall that many of the nuclear warheads floating around the planet are far more potent than 10 or 15 kilotons. Like 100 kilotons. Or 1,000 kilotons. Or 10,000 kilotons.
Within days after a nuclear terror attack, all of us would probably see the remorseless imposition of martial law into virtually every sphere of American life—as our government endeavored both to track down the perpetrators and prevent future perpetrations. Would any American politicians muster the temerity to object? For those who worry about the degradation of civil liberties today in the wake of the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and warrantless NSA spying on Americans, only one thing can be said about the nuclear terror scenario: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
And how might America react in the international sphere? Even if no evidence emerged regarding who was behind the dastardly deed, enraged citizens and demagogic politicians would bay for retaliatory nuclear strikes. Perhaps on Tehran? Perhaps on Damascus? Perhaps on Mecca and Medina? “We’ve got to strike back somewhere, dammit!” It is hard to imagine any American president resisting such pressures indefinitely. And it is hard to fathom the global depths of mass degradation toward which such responses, ultimately, might lead.
In our fascination with what one has to concede was a quite ingenious London liquid bomber plot, we dare not divert our attentions from the real threat. The real threat is nuclear. The right wing exploits this threat to whip up support for ever more military dollars here and ever more military actions elsewhere. But we on the left can offer alternative policy prescriptions of our own to forestall the nightmare of nuclear terror.
In the short term, we must make it our top national security priority to keep all nuclear weapons and materials out of the hands of potential terrorists—and, as the London police did, make sure that we get the terrorists before they get us. In the medium term, we might want to consider what it is about our foreign policies that so enrages so many, and whether we might eliminate old enemies and make new friends by demonstrating some humility, empathy and generosity on the world stage. And in the long term, the only sure solution to the threat of nuclear cataclysm is the abolition of nuclear weapons—and universal, verifiable and enforceable controls over all things nuclear. Eventually we must abolish these abominations, before they abolish us.
After the arrests were announced, Paul Stephenson, London’s deputy police chief, claimed the plotters were planning “mass murder on an unimaginable scale.” It’s far too easy to imagine that upon hearing Mr. Stephenson, some young Muslim man, sitting with his compatriots in a sweltering basement—perhaps in Haifa, perhaps in High Wycombe, perhaps in Houston—thought for a moment, smiled villainously and replied to the television screen, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
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