The same logic applies to security concerns. We need to accept that politically motivated violence will be a chronic problem, just like crime and pollution. Just as every large company and government agency has to conduct environmental impact studies and take into consideration the effects of its policies on pollution levels, so do large companies and government agencies now need to take security against terrorist attacks into consideration when designing new projects and in the normal course of their work. Taking into account problems and risks of pollution or security vulnerabilities does not mean allowing such considerations to dominate our thinking or rule out activities that are of interest and value to our society. Rather it means that reasonable and cost-effective measures to reduce those risks will become standard expectations along with detailed formulas and standards that will evolve over time as technologies, values, and specific challenges change.

In this connection, note that we treat contamination that might arise from nuclear power plant accidents or waste disposal differently than we approach problems of PCBs in drinking water, arsenic in wells, or sulfur dioxide in the air. Nuclear plant meltdowns can be sudden and catastrophic. Therefore we regulate the building and operation of nuclear power plants in exquisite detail, going far to ensure their safety even as the costs involved discourage their construction. The analogy with terrorism is that the public and the government are correct to view the potential of a terrorist attack using an improvised nuclear device with particular seriousness. Indeed it is one of the implications of what we have learned that the War on Terror is so out of control and so resistant to criteria of rationality and cost effectiveness, that we will almost certainly not direct our counterterrorism resources with the necessary focus and effectiveness on nuclear or other unlikely but extremely high impact threats.

Good work on the threat of nuclear terrorism is being done. One key to dealing with the nuclear threat is recognizing that building a crude device and bringing it into the United States or near its shores is not the most difficult challenge facing potential nuclear terrorists. Their most difficult problem is accumulating enough of the properly enriched nuclear material for a bomb and then establishing confidence that it will work without testing it. With these bottlenecks in mind, our military, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies, in cooperation with those of our allies participating in the nuclear-nonproliferation regime, can conduct aggressive, effective, but necessarily secret operations to market faulty plans for building a bomb.

Finally, let us stare straight into the face of the possibility that our country could be hit by a nuclear terrorist attack. Although even al-Qaeda has tended to shy away from actual threats to use nuclear weapons, for both ideological and political reasons it is conceivable that such an organization could attempt such an attack. Experts agree that an attack designed to contaminate an urban area with deadly levels of radioactivity would be far easier for terrorists to mount than the explosion of even a crude atomic bomb. Such an attack, however, delivering death and disfigurement over generations to thousands of random individuals, lacks the sort of heroic or dramatic profile that jihadi terrorists require. A spectacular nuclear explosion would be more consistent with their objectives and their modus operandi. The national planning scenario for a nuclear attack by terrorists on Washington, D.C., projects the scale of devastation to be orders of magnitude greater than any other type of terrorist action, including a radiological bomb. The scenario predicts tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of fatalities, many more injuries, including tens of thousands of blinded victims, destruction or severe damage to buildings within 3,500 feet of the blast site, contamination of up to 3,000 square miles depending on wind conditions, a substantial increase in the cancer rate, and a recovery period of years with a cost of many billions of dollars and the strong possibility of a national economic downturn.

The prospect is truly horrific, and we must do what we can to minimize the likelihood of it happening. But even with respect to this kind of catastrophe we must be prepared to think clearly. The energy and recruits our blundering War on Terror has provided al-Qaeda and its clones, along with the continuing waste of our resources, confidence, and international reputation, shows that wounds inflicted by the impulsive use of our own enormous power can be the most damaging result of terrorist actions against us. The number of Americans killed and maimed in Iraq has already far surpassed the awful casualty toll on 9/11. Accordingly, even if the worst occurs and, despite our best concentrated, focused efforts to prevent it, we are struck by terrorists wielding a crude but devastating nuclear device, we must remember that we can and will recover from such a blow. Whether we would be able to recover from the effects of the destruction we would be tempted to immediately inflict on others is a much more difficult question. Only a society based on confident resilience, not debilitating hysteria, and leaders acting out of courage and discipline rather than impulse and bravado could survive such an ordeal without lashing out so massively as to render the planet unsafe for Americans for generations. Since 9/11 Americans have not been well served by their leaders. It is therefore up to all Americans to build the society we need and choose the leaders we deserve, not only to escape the War on Terror trap but to protect ourselves from the real threats we face.

Dr. Ian S. Lustick, professor of political science and Bess W. Heyman Chair at Penn, is the author of many books and articles, including Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza (1993). Reprinted by arrangement with University of Pennsylvania Press from Trapped in the War on Terror by Ian S. Lustick. Copyright © 2006 by Ian S. Lustick. Some text and all footnotes have been omitted from this excerpt, which includes portions from the preface and the concluding chapter.

Lowering the Temperature By Ian S. Lustick
EXCERPT: Trapped in the War on Terror

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06