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Worst Case: Nuclear Arms in a New World

NEW YORK -- On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline. In my neighborhood - I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center - the heavens were raining human beings.

It will take months merely to know what happened, far longer to feel so much grief, longer still to understand its meaning. It's already clear, however, that one aspect of the catastrophe is of supreme importance for the future: the danger of the use of weapons of mass destruction, and especially the use of nuclear weapons. It is a danger that has been largely ignored since the end of the Cold War.

Among the small number who have been concerned with nuclear arms in recent years, it has been commonly said that the world would not return its attention to this danger until a nuclear weapon was again set off somewhere in the world. Then, the tiny club said to itself, the world would reawaken to its danger.

The ingredients of such a catastrophe were reported on daily. The repeated suicide-homicides of the suicide bombers in Israel have made it obvious that there are people so possessed by their cause that, in an exaltation of hatred, they will do anything in its name. Many reports -most recently an article in The New York Times on the very morning of the World Trade Center attack -reminded the public that the world was awash in nuclear materials and the wherewithal for other weapons of mass destruction. Russia is bursting at the seams with these materials. But history is a trickster.

The fates came up with a different horror. No one had identified the civilian airliner as a weapon of mass destruction, but it occurred to the diabolical imagination of those who conceived Tuesday's attack that it could be one. The invention illumined the nature of terrorism in modern times. These terrorists carried no bombs -only knives, if initial reports are to be believed. In short, they turned the tremendous forces inherent in modern technical society- in this case, Boeing 767s brimming with jet fuel -against itself.

So it is also with the more commonly recognized weapons of mass destruction. Their materials can of course be built the hard way, from scratch, as Iraq came within an ace of doing until stopped by the Gulf War and as Pakistan and India have done, or they can be diverted from Russian, or for that matter American or English or French or Chinese stockpiles. In the one case, it is nuclear know-how that is turned against its inventors, in the other it is their hardware. Either way, it is "blowback" -the use of a technical capacity against its creator.


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Modern society's inherent potential for its own destruction -nicely captured in the name of our still-current nuclear policy "mutual assured destruction" -of course exists in forms even more devastating than possible terrorist attacks. India and Pakistan, who both possess nuclear weapons and have recently engaged in one of their many hot wars, are the likeliest candidates. Most important -and most forgotten- are some 30,000 nuclear weapons that remain in the arsenals of Russia and the United States. The Bush administration has announced its intention to break out of the SALT I treaty of 1972 that bans anti-nuclear defenses, and the Russians have answered that if this treaty is abandoned the whole framework of nuclear arms control built up over thirty years may collapse. There is no quarrel between the United States and Russia that suggests a nuclear exchange between them, but accidents are another matter, and, as Tuesday's attack has shown, the mood and even the structure of the international order can change overnight.

What should be done? Should further steps be taken to protect the country and the world from terrorism, including nuclear terrorism? They should. And yet, even as we take these steps, we must hold, as if to life itself, to a fundamental truth that has been known to all thoughtful people since the destruction of Hiroshima: There is no technical solution to the vulnerability of modern populations to weapons of mass destruction.

After Tuesday's attack, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld placed American forces on the highest state of alert and ordered destroyers and aircraft carriers to take up positions up and down the coasts of the United States. But none of these measures can repeal the vulnerability that the heart-breaking gap in the New York skyline revealed. This, obviously, holds equally true for that other Maginot Line, the proposed system of national missile defense. Thirty billion dollars is being been spent on intelligence annually. We can assume that some sizable chunk of this was devoted to protecting the World Trade Center since it was first bombed in 1993. There may have been mistakes. But the truth is that no one can demonstrate that the expenditure of even 10 times that amount can prevent a terrorist attack on the United States or any other country. The combination of the extraordinary power of modern technology, the universal and instantaneous spread of information in the Information Age, and the mobility inherent in a globalized economy and world prevent it.

Man, however, is not merely a technical animal. Aristotle pointed out that we are also a political animal, and it is to politics that we must return for the solutions that hold promise. That means returning to the treaties that the United States has recently been discarding like so much old newspaper- the one dealing, for example, with an International Criminal Court (useful for tracking down terrorists and bringing them to justice), with global warming, and, above all, of course, with nuclear arms and the other weapons of mass destruction. The United States and seven other countries now rely on the retaliatory execution of destruction a million-fold greater than the Tuesday attacks for their national security.

The exit from this folly, by which we endanger ourselves as much as others, must be found. Rediscovering ourselves as political animals also means understanding that the sources of the hatred that the United States has incurred in a decade of neglect of international affairs- a task that is highly unwelcome to many in current circumstances but nevertheless is indispensable to the future safety of the United States and the world. The country has been shocked awake. The great opportunities for peace- and especially for nuclear disarmament- that opened up with the end of the Cold War have not disappeared. The tragedy of September 11 can be the occasion to seize them. The cost of failing to do so is too high to be accepted.

It would be disrespectful of the dead to in any way minimize the catastrophe that overtook New York this week. Yet at the same time we must keep room in our minds for the fact that it could have been worse. To lose two huge buildings and the people in them is one thing; to lose all of Manhattan -or much, much more--is another. The emptiness in the sky can spread. We have been warned.

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, The Fate of the Earth, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  He died on March 25, 2014.


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