WASHINGTON -- You might think that fear of a nuclear war would eclipse other current worries. But people don't even want to think about the unthinkable. They can't concentrate on annihilation because they're engrossed in the "what might have been" on 9/11. The CIA and the FBI are slugging it out like schoolboys on a playground yelling "Did! Didn't!" at each other. In London, it's World Cup soccer and the queen's golden jubilee that keep them from fretting about incineration.
On Capitol Hill, they talk about military budgets and homeland security and what G-woman Coleen Rowley thinks about FBI Director Bob Mueller. The president says we must focus on the future and avoid a special commission on what happened.
In Tom Daschle's office, the telephone never rings with distraught constituents who don't want to be among the 12 million casualties predicted in a nuclear exchange. Instead, callers implore him to make sure Americans don't blame one another for Sept. 11.
Nuclear war is even worse than terrorism. It could lead to famine, plague and a great depression. Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf rightly said that "no sane person would discuss the prospect of nuclear war." But India and Pakistan are not quite sane on the subject of Kashmir, the beautiful province that neither can contemplate giving up. Musharraf and India's Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who were in the same room in Kazakhstan last week, weren't speaking. India was given custody of Kashmir by the ruling maharajah at the time of partition, but Pakistan claims a free election would show that Kashmir's Muslim majority wants to belong to Pakistan.
India claims Pakistan still sends terrorists across the "Line of Control" in Kashmir. Musharraf keeps insisting he is not. There is much incoming international traffic. Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Communist Party leader offered their services as mediators, although neither seems a natural for the job. Indians say Musharraf is taking advantage of his position as our most crucial ally in the Afghan war on terrorism to make trouble up in Kashmir. President Bush told him to back off.
Pakistan's plaint that India's 2-to-1 advantage in conventional forces may not leave it anything but a nuclear option has not been well received. Nor has Musharraf's failure to adopt India's "no first use" policy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the highest-ranking visitor to the region and knows players on both sides quite well. He will join Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has been outlining the horrors that await a doomsday solution: millions of refugees in flight; the injured crammed into hospitals; food shortages; maimed, burned people, with generations of hideously deformed human beings to come.
History's first nuclear war would devastate the Asian subcontinent, and the shock waves would be felt worldwide. Our war against terror would collapse as we took arms against the fallout -- physical, psychological and environmental -- that would come in the wake of the mushroom cloud.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., reports that her constituents are concerned about three things: "the economy, the shortage of crabs and the Ravens stadium being blown up the way it is in Tom Clancy's book 'The Sum of All Fears.'" London pubs were jammed with revelers whose joy in England's tie with Sweden makes you wonder what victory over Argentina would do.
It could be that America's mind is an overloaded circuit and cannot process any more adverse material. Sept. 11 brought death without warning. In June we're hearing that it was not a total surprise to our warring intelligence agencies. We are faced now with endless war everywhere.
On another front, House Democratic leader and presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt made a pledge of allegiance to George W. Bush. If Bush exhausts all diplomatic possibilities and Saddam Hussein threatens nuclear war, Gephardt is right behind him on military action. His timing was startling. The Joint Chiefs of Staff told Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks that they oppose the invasion, despite what the hawkish civilian lobby, the Cakewalk Invincibles, is telling Bush.
What if Coleen Rowley and Kenneth Williams had been given their heads and told to follow their noses and had warned us that Arab fiends would use our own planes to ram buildings and slaughter thousands? Would we have believed them?
Maybe the most useful things Rumsfeld could do would be to take copies of John Hersey's "Hiroshima," hand them to Vajpayee and Musharraf and ask them, "Is this what you really want?"
Mary McGrory is a columnist with The Washington Post.
Copyright 2002 The Washington Post