Watered Down Terror

This piece appeared during the week of August 20-27, 2006 on truthdig.com, huffingtonpost.com, and commondreams.org.

The real terror threat is the nuclear terror threat. But the left can offer better preventative strategies than an endless “war on terror.”


Blowing up ten airliners simultaneously over the Atlantic. That’s so junior varsity.

Unfortunately, the varsity squad may have worse in the works.

On Thursday, August 10th, British authorities arrested more than twenty individuals suspected of plotting to annihilate as many as ten passenger jets, in mid-flight over the Atlantic, on the same day. Five days later, the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica issued a long-awaited study detailing the terrifying consequences – for the entire world, for many years – that would ensue if terrorists were able to detonate a nuclear warhead on a pier at Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor, the busiest in the United States. The juxtaposition of these two stories does indeed, as President Bush said, serve as a “stark reminder” of the realities of modern terror. Two paramount truths stand out.



The 21st Century has seen the emergence of a new kind of terrorist – or, more precisely, new kinds of terrorist goals. In the final three or four decades of the last century, most terrorists appeared to possess specific political goals, and calculated that outrages beyond a certain level would diminish their likelihood of obtaining them. Terror scholar Brian Jenkins put the traditional approach well, when he famously said the objective was to have “a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead.”

But many of the terror attacks of recent years – Bali, Madrid, London, 9/11 – appear to have been driven by a different strategic calculus. In these episodes, the political goal itself seemed to be to inflict maximum pain and suffering upon the target society.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of 9/11 was that none of the perpetrators left suicide notes. They did not issue a list of demands. They did not recite a litany of grievances. They did not appear to care what message their execrable undertaking conveyed.

They simply wanted to slaughter as many innocent souls as possible.

And at this hour, the London liquid bombers appear to have had identical objectives.


To pursue such objectives, murdering 3000 people by crashing airplanes into buildings is not bad. Murdering another 3000 people by blowing up ten airliners on a single day is not bad either.

But there is one potential tool of terror that could outdo these atrocities a hundred fold — 300,000 innocent souls. Or maybe even a thousand fold — 3,000,000 innocent souls. All murdered in the blink of an eye. The snap of a finger. The single beat of a human heart.

Shortly after 9/11, I picked up a novel published in 1980 — political eons ago. It was called The Fifth Horseman, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It was about someone planting an atom bomb in the middle of Manhattan. I will not reveal here how it turns out. I will admit that reading it in September 2001 kept me up, every night, until after 3 A.M.

Listen to the late U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, on the many varieties of small portable nuclear warheads. “Among the 70,000 U.S. nuclear weapons produced during the Cold War were suitcase bombs, neutron bombs, torpedoes, depth charges, artillery shells, air-to-air missiles and anti-tank rockets. The laboratories were like nuclear ice cream factories, churning out the flavor of the day to meet the latest craving of the customers.”

The Soviet Union, of course, had similar ice cream factories of its own. And Osama bin Laden, his minions, and his imitators want nothing more than to obtain just a single ice cream cone.

It will not be easy. Getting their hands on a nuclear warhead — through theft, bribery, a lightning paramilitary operation on a facility not well guarded in Russia or Pakistan, pick your poison — will surely be hard. Getting it into this country will be hard. Figuring out how to detonate it at the right time and place will be hard. Getting a sufficient quantity of weapons-grade uranium-235 or plutonium-239, alternatively, and building a bomb of their own, will undoubtedly be even harder.

But if those who aspire to pull off this sequence of events try to do so 1000 times, and fail 999 times, we lose.

And they’re not in a hurry, either. There’s no rush. Time is on their side. “You have to be lucky every single time,” the Irish Republican Army used to say. “We have to be lucky just once.”


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 their 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 (hypothetical future) 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 wake up 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 August 15th, 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, two or three 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 miniscule 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 1000 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. Will 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.”


Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons