12 August 2005
Thoughts on the changing nuclear threat, 60 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki
"There used to be so-called laws of war that made it [war] tolerable," Mohatma Gandhi said. But now, with the advent of nuclear weapons, "We understand the naked truth."
Given access to a means to exterminate our enemy, in other words, we'll take it.
After India's nuclear tests in 1998, Gandhi's nation danced in the streets. Nuclear virgins, clearly. While their assets had developed, they remained innocent of the powers at their disposal. When it used nuclear weapons 60 years ago this week, the US forfeited its virginity. With the bloom thus off the rose, even American hawks seldom rattle the saber like nuclear newcomers. Besides, discretion, it seems, is the better part of proliferation.
When the Congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review was released in January 2002, it quietly omitted mention of continued compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, in diplo-speak, Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch said, "We are trying to. . . modify an existing weapon, to give it greater capability against hard. . . and deeply buried targets."
In other words, the administration thinks tactical nuclear weapons are small enough to fly under the radar. But they aren’t. The danger, as defense analyst William Arkin wrote in a May 15 Washington Post article, "This blurring of the nuclear/conventional line could heighten the risk that the nuclear option will be used."
If it’s a neat rationale for tactical nuclear weapons you want, one is provided by C. Paul Robinson of the Sandia National Laboratories.
"Where the hell are we going to use missiles with four to eight warheads, or half-megaton yields?" he asked regarding cold war strategy. ". . . it's pretty incredible to think that the United States would [vaporize] 11 million people in a rogue state just because they were poorly led."
Besides the administration's embrace of tactical nukes as a weapon of preemptive war, most proud owners of nuclear weapons—and those that look on longingly—conceive of it as a tool for deterrence or for bartering.
Except, that is, bin Laden and his lieutenants.
Still the ganglion for the independent organisms that Al Qaeda comprises today, their avowed goal, like anarchists of old, is to light the fuse of a bomb and toss it into a crowd.
fter 9/11, the US didn't just strike back at Afghanistan—few Americans are aware that we subjected it to one of the most massive bombing attacks in history. Had bin Laden, to whatever degree he was responsible for 9/11, anticipated not only the retaliation, but its scope and intensity? In other words, did he think it through?
It didn't seem like it. Especially when you pictured him dragging a dialysis unit behind him, like an oversized canister vacuum cleaner, from cave to cave. That beggars the question of what, if any, retaliation he expects should his A-Team succeed in detonating a nuclear device.
As Graham Allison writes in Nuclear Terrorism (Times Books, 2004), Israeli intelligence sources claimed that in 1998 bin Laden paid $2 million to a Kazakhstani for a Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) or "suitcase" bomb—that most practical of tacticals. A month later, his people supposedly shelled out $30 million and two tons of opium to Chechen mobsters for 20 "loose nuke" Russian warheads.
Yossef Bodansky, head of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, confirmed this. "There is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has succeeded in his quest for nuclear suicide bombs [and] has a collection of individuals knowledgeable in activating the bombs."
In 1999 bin Laden himself said, "If I have indeed acquired [them], then I thank God for enabling me to do so." By 2002, he claimed to have stockpiled 48 SADMs. Not content with procuring, a month before 9/11, he turned his intention to manufacturing and was reported to have bought design plans from two former officials of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, Muslim and Christian leaders and scholars convened in May for a conference hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Straddling that fine line between important and impotent, they sought to notarize nuclear condemnation with their "Statement Regarding Muslim-Christian Perspectives on the Nuclear Weapons Danger."
"We believe," it reads, "that chemical, biological and particularly nuclear weapons. . . inevitably destroy innocent human life [and] that the ideal response to the nuclear threat is a total and universal ban on all such weapons, including low yield tactical nuclear weapons. . ."
But, as Iran's top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani said, the proof is in the fatwah. For example, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—whether or not it was a smokescreen is another question—forbids the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. "It is much more important for us to abide by this decree," Rowhani said, "than the articles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
But one has only to consult the "Fatwah Bank" on Islam Online to learn that there are fatwahs and then there are fatwahs. Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani's reads, "Possessing power and weapons of mass destruction is a test from Allah to humans, to see whether they will restrain themselves from using these weapons against innocent people who are also part of the human family."
Truly the sentiment of a noble mind. However, live by the fatwah, die by the fatwah. Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi says that "in case these nuclear weapons are used against Muslims, it becomes permissible for Muslims to defend themselves using the same weapon. This is based on the words of Allah: 'If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted.'"
The distance from a scimitar to a nuclear weapon is as long and winding as the Abkhaz drug route from Afghanistan through Chechnya. But Sheikh Mawlawi telescoped history from Mohammed to the present into a superhighway. Still, his justification is nothing compared to the one bin Laden secured.
The author of Imperial Hubris (Potomac, 2004), CIA officer Michael Scheuer of "Anonymous" fame, appeared on Sixty Minutes on November 14, 2004. He spoke of Sheik Nasir bin Hamid al Fahd, who bin Laden depends on, along with his two Salafi Jihadi colleagues, Ali al-Khudayr and Ahmad al-Khaladi, to provide religious support for his strategies and tactics.
In his 25-page fatwah, "A Treatise on the Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction against Infidels," al Fahd said that if "the basic [Islamic] rule in killing is to do it in a good manner. . . one kills in a good manner only when one can."
In other words, if women, children, and even fellow Muslims are the collateral, he can live with them clattering down around him if it's in the pursuit of jihad.
Meanwhile, some jihadi statistician took time off from trying to figure out how many infidels fit through the eye of a needle to calculate that ten million Muslims had been killed by American weapons. Thus, al Fahd concluded, taking an equal number of lives in an attack on America is only fair play.
He does, however, qualify this last pronouncement. "We might need other arguments," al Fahd said, "if we wanted to annihilate more than this number of them.”
Thank goodness for small favors.
Has bin Laden considered the consequences of a nuclear strike, or has he just placed it in Allah's hands?
That's as much a question for not only Islam but the West—and an opportunity for Thomas Friedman to actually earn his pay. Regarding the London bombings, he wrote in his July 8 New York Times column that, “unlike after 9/11, there is no obvious, easy target to retaliate against.”
"The Al Qaeda threat," he continued, “has metastasized and become franchised. It is no longer vertical, something that we can punch in the face. It is now horizontal, flat and widely distributed, operating through the Internet and tiny cells."
By dispersing itself in a cruel mockery of the diaspora, Al Qaeda renders massive retaliation no more effective than trying to nail a fly with a sledgehammer. But according to Wretchard of the renowned right-wing blog the Belmont Club, its protean structure may also be its downfall.
First he reminds us that all that stands between Al Qaeda and a nuclear attack is lack of capability. "This is an inversion of the Cold War situation," he writes, "when the capability of the Soviet Union to destroy America was a given but their intent to do so, in the face of certain retaliation, was doubtful."
Wretchard asks us to consider a case where Islamic terrorists obliterate a city, causing five times the deaths at Hiroshima. At this point, it behooves us to pause and remind ourselves just what it is we're turning over in our minds.
In a piece in the Guardian on March 24, titled "Children of Hiroshima," David Smith records the description of a witness: ". . . intestines. . . brains hanging out. . . Eyes had popped out. . . the blood vessels still pulsing. . . Adults put their heads into the river and never came back up."
"Horrific, just horrific," the advocate of realpolitik thinks. "But I'm not afraid to make the tough decisions.
"With an American limited response in a war between nations," Wretchard continues, "the conflict might stop at this point." However, if it's a cell, rather than bin Laden who pulls off the strike, "the absence of someone with whom to negotiate a peace as well as the inclination to stop, the Islamic terrorists will continue to the extent of their capability.
"Even if the terror chiefs could somehow be contacted in this apocalyptic scenario and persuaded to bury the hatchet, the lack of command and control imposed by the cell structure would prevent them from reining in their minions.
"The so-called strengths of Islamic terrorism: fanatical intent; lack of a centralized leadership; absence of a final authority and cellular structure" are also its downfall. Therefore," Wretchard concludes, "the 'rational' American response to the initiation of a terrorist WMD attack would be all-out retaliation from the outset."
Whatever you think of his conclusion, Wretchard's main point is irrefutable. It may be too late, but keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Islamists would save not only the West, but Islam as well.
Whether bin Laden has drawn up post-Apocalypse plans or, like the administration with Iraq, contented himself with flying on a wing and a prayer, no one knows but his inner circle. But relegated to the afterlife, Islamists are likely to be met there by Muslims whose ire finally matches that of their revolutionary brethren: "What in Allah's name happened to that Islamic state you promised us?"
At this point it behooves us to recall the popular nuclear-age fantasy about the last-man-on-earth. Perhaps the urge to repopulate the earth with the last woman is not just a staple of Western science fiction. Maybe it's a deposit in our collective unconscious into which Islamists have tapped as well.
One need only recall the words of Richard Russell, the former senator from Georgia, when voting for more nuclear weapons. "If we do have to start over with another Adam and Eve, I want them to be Christians."
Maybe your eschatological Islamists suffer from that much-flaunted syndrome that nobody really understands unless they suffer from it—the death wish. However, that usually necessitates doubling back to the erotic: death on a grand scale as a sexual experience.
In his article "Nuclear War as an Anti-Sexual Group Fantasy," psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause cites a 1987 article by Carol Cohn, "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
She reported her observations of the nuclear-war-policy boys club, which is spiked with terms like vertical erector launchers, deep penetration, and, as one military adviser called detonating the bomb, an "orgasmic whump."
"I thought," Cohn said, ". . . someone [might be] embarrassed to be caught in such blatant confirmation of feminist analyses. Of course, I was wrong."
Sexually frustrated and/or repressed Islamic men have got to be at least as susceptible to this as Americans in the military and defense. The more pent-up the orgasm, the more it looms, in all the glory of its mounting potential energy, like a bomb waiting to go off.
They're not the only ones who will lose their nuclear virginity, though. The victims of their attack will be the object of the ultimate deflowering.
Wellen is the editor of the online political journal