Warring Against Terrorism

What If This Is More Serious Than It Looks?

Date

In pondering the relentlessly invoked War on Terrorism, it seems to me we need to hold in the forefront of our minds one question: What would be the consequences of a nuclear explosion in an American city?

Is such an explosion really possible?

In the extremes of political discourse, particularly where the right wing runs out of feathers and giddy space begins, one finds a sort of ardent romantic paranoia, which seems to serve its partisans as a substitute for bowling. Those imbued with it argue that that the Russians plot a nuclear first-strike on the United States. Never mind that the Russians probably couldn't coordinate sock hops in neighboring high schools, aren't crazy, and have no reason to start a nuclear war. Alternatively, argue the chronically apocalyptic, the Chinese will nuke us. With a population of a billion-three, they say almost happily, China wouldn't mind losing 200 million people in a nuclear exchange. (This suggests a very peculiar understanding of the Chinese.) We therefore must become a frightened military state and build armed space stations or whatever.

A reasonable response, certainly my response, to these enthusiasts of global pan-frying is, "There, there, take your medication. Try on this nice white jacket with the lo-o-n-n-g sleeves. Yes, we're going to dinner. Everything will be all right."

Do you really worry that the Russians will nuke us? Me either.

Now ask yourself: If Moslem terrorists had a nuclear bomb and knew how to set it off, do you think they would hesitate to do so in an American city? Do you trust Iraq not to supply such a weapon if it had one?

Exactly.

Now, what would be the consequences of a nuclear burst in Manhattan? (Or Cleveland, which is probably less well guarded.) In physical terms it's hard to say. The damage would depend on the bomb, and bombs come in all sizes from small backpack models to great big huge ones. The destruction might be less than some would expect. American cities are made of concrete reinforced with steel, whereas Japanese cities in 1945 were of paper and wood. On the other hand, a ground burst, which it necessarily would be, would presumably be very dirty, producing large amounts of radioactive fallout.

These are details. They wouldn't matter.

Remember that after the towers went down, two things happened. First, the nation was engulfed in couch-potato blood-lust and ready to send other people to fight terrorists. Second, the airlines saw bookings drop precipitously. People were afraid to fly.

If a nuclear explosion destroyed even a few blocks of New York, would anyone ever go back to work in the city?

There might, after all, be another bomb waiting. There would certainly be radiation. The public would not think arithmetically in terms of rads and roentgens and allowable dosages. New York would be crippled. It happens to be the economic hub of the nation.

And of course we couldn't know whether there really was another bomb in New York, or in another city. In a sense it wouldn't matter. The possibility would be enough. What would Cincinnati do if, a week after New York went high-order, an Arabic accent called to say that the city was next?

I've seen Washington nearly shut down because somebody left jello somewhere marked "Antrax." (Spelling is a lost art, even among terrorists.) Imagine the panic if a city were told it was going to melt in two hours. The traffic jam would be monumental. People would be crushed to death. And the next day another city would panic.

In short, it seems to me that one small nuke would bring the country to a devastating halt, force it to become a police state, and leave us to live forever scared.

It may be that Moslems do not quite grasp what they are playing with. Some do, no doubt. Some don't care, yet, or else believe that nothing can happen to them. Terrorism aimed at the US relies on the principle that if we cannot attach an attack to a particular nation, with assurance bordering on beyond-reasonable-doubt, we can't, or won't, do anything nuclear.

But the United States can't allow nuclear terrorism and continue as a polity worth living in. Further, if pushed hard enough, America could end Islamic civilization in a day. And might. The Moslem world would do well to bear this in mind. There are lines one doesn't cross, things that cannot be permitted no matter the cost of preventing them. Further, a nation can become impulsive after losing 150,000 people and its principal city. Every country suspected of complicity could be bubbling slag before the sun went down, and probably would.

If this sounds like crazed doomsday maundering, ask yourself what else we would do when the Twin Towers looked like a minor traffic accident by comparison and the whole nation began living in fear of the next one.

And after that, what? It strikes me as probable that Europe would recognize that the same could happen to it, and support the US. (Except for France, which presumably has a surrender document on the Internet, with blanks you can fill in.) Japan also has terrorists and cities. I suspect that the civilized world in totality would decide that nuclear incendiarism was intolerable, since all would be vulnerable. The planet might decide that children, primitives, and zealots cannot be permitted to play with Bombs.

The result would be the virtual colonization of any Moslem country able or anywhere near able to produce nuclear weapons. The oil would be no barrier. As long as Russian didn't back the Arabs, Saudi Arabia could be occupied in about five minutes. By Papua-New Guinea, the Boy Scouts, or three Marines.

We should perhaps remember that large wars happen. Few wanted WWII or would have in 1932 thought it possible. Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, a nuclear bomb on American soil -- all, before they happen, sound like the ravings of dementia.

The world would be better off if these particular things didn't hapen. Frying several million people is not to be lightly undertaken. The results of major upheavals are not readily foreseen. How can a convulsion be prevented?

Answer: By taking any measures necessary -- any measures at all -- to prevent Iraq from building nuclear weapons. If it were not for the nuclear potential, one might argue about the President's policy toward Iraq. Or one might not. But Saddam Hussein cannot be permitted any possibility of having nuclear weapons. It's that simple. Whether we like it or not, we need to say "no," and we need to mean it. The potential consequences of not doing so leave no choice.