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Russ Wellen: Nuclear Terrorism Goes Prime Time

Nuclear Terrorism Goes Prime Time

By Russ Wellen

Is nuclear terrorism finally hot? Not like a potato, but as in what-is/what's-not? If the public's imagination can be captured by a mysterious organization like the Priory of Sion via Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, why not by an even more secret society--the fraternal order of nuclear terrorists? After all, what plot can top mankind's survival hanging in the balance?

The film short, Last Best Chance, which premiered October 17 on HBO in the United States, may go a long way toward luring nuclear terrorism into the limelight. Produced by American financier Ted Turner's think tank, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, it represents our race to nuclear doom as a Hollywood thriller. It's also available free at

Last Best Chance's way was paved by an October 13 segment of ABC's American news magazine, Primetime, titled "Radioactive Road Trip," in which undercover journalism students sought entry into nuclear research reactors on college campuses. It featured a star turn by former US assistant secretary of defense Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe and godfather to the anti-nuclear terrorism movement.

Last Best Chance better not count on word of mouth though. By allowing our fingers to slip toward the edge with no helping hand in sight, it plays fast and loose with the conventions of a cliffhanger, sending us to our likely doom.

Covering the initial screening for the New Yorker's Talk of the Town, Hendrik Hertzberg quoted Ted Turner, who claimed that it was only a few years ago that "I still thought that nuclear weapons, biological and chemical weapons, was an area that the government took care of."

As with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economy, voices once reluctant to speak out against the American administration are taking it to task for its shortcomings. Those who worked on or endorsed Last Best Chance include actor/senator Fred Thompson; NTI head Sam Nunn; his partner in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, Republican Senator Richard Lugar; the 9/11 Commission's chair and vice-chair, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton; and Warren Buffett.

However, it remains to be seen if the issue will remain in the spotlight. Aside from occasional appearances, such as when Dick Cheney famously warned us of forces "able to come into the country and perhaps smuggle weapons of mass destruction in with them," up to now nuclear terrorism has been damped down to a profile as low as that kept by those trading in the nuclear black market.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media, presumably out of fear of scaring viewers and readers away, has doled the issue out in small doses, like medicine. Surely, though, the progressive press has been hammering away at it, right? To the contrary--aside from an encouraging word about Last Best Chance in the New York Press, a Google search reveals nothing but the occasional acknowledging blog. Nuclear terrorism may be the only threat to mankind to which the progressive press has devoted even less attention than the mainstream or hard right has.

In fact, Fox News and MSNBC's Tucker Carlson have both hosted Graham Allison. More often, though, nuclear terrorism has been the province of the wild cyber-right: FrontPageMag, Newsmax, and especially WorldNetDaily, whose founder and editor, Joseph Farah, feet for once firmly planted on the ground, anticipated Turner's comment. "And since the government is doing next to nothing to protect the American people," Farah said, "it seems appropriate to let [the people] in on the dirty little secret."

Also promoted by these online outlets, though, near as I can tell, he's bipartisan, is the Jeremiah with the biggest shofar--Paul L. Williams, who begins where Allison ends. He's written Osama's Revenge and now, The Al Qaeda Connection, in both of which he's as unapologetic about shouting "Apocalypse!" in a crowded theatre as he is meticulous in his footnoting.

Williams also calls the administration on the carpet. "I cannot figure out why they have not done more to address the threat," he said. "Maybe they don't know how or hope nothing will happen."

What gives with this reticence about matters nuclear by an administration that prides itself on its record on terrorism? While it's never been reluctant to use terror-coded alerts to put the fear of God in us, none have been nuclear.

The administration has, however, taken some steps, such as enlisting other G8 nations to match America’s $1 billion annual commitment to secure and eliminate former Soviet nuclear weapons. Also, it's trying to launch a division of the DHS called the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials across borders.

Then, in a surprise move, the National Nuclear Security Administration just conducted demonstrations on radioactive material theft-prevention for China's burgeoning nuclear power industry.

Unwillingness to concede that any constructive measures whatsoever have been taken by the administration (actually, Allison gives it a "D") may be one reason progressives have refrained from taking on nuclear terrorism.

More to the point, however, progressives may be inclined to think that addressing it plays into the hands of the administration, which uses fear-mongering as a means to an end. Those include: a. adding an elbow joint to the war on terror by routing it through Iraq, b. justifying attacking, instead of negotiating with, Iran, and c. curtailing civil liberties.

Finally, due to their capacity for empathy, many progressives may actually be as faint of heart as they're reputed to be and thus ill-equipped to deal with the results of nuclear conflict.

Meanwhile, elements of the hard right are undergoing a transformation. Once they were all too happy to contemplate nuclear war as a strategy. But now that we're at the mercy of non-state actors who don't play fair, they're putting the ice in their veins to good use and taking a long, hard look at the consequences of the kind of nuclear attack that slips under the radar.

No matter how stealthy, if pulled off by Al Qaeda, it won't be an independent operation by an autonomous cell. You can bet that since bin Laden seems to have shelled out the equivalent of a small country's budget for nuclear material, he, al-Zawahiri, and their shura (governing council) would sign off on such an attack.

The obvious question arises: What are they thinking? Summoning up some of that notorious liberal empathy, we wonder if they've addressed the nature and size of an American retaliation to a prospective nuclear strike?

It's possible Al Qaeda's command is counting on American confusion about which state to retaliate against for a non-state's attack. Otherwise, it's hard to believe that since bin Laden experienced America's all-out aerial assault on Afghanistan first-hand, he still clings to the belief we're weak because we failed to respond to the bombings of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the African embassies, and the USS Cole bombing.

Perhaps his mania for nuclear accumulation has simply acquired a life of its own--we in the US know how that works--and its momentum steamrollers his reservations. Bin Laden's greatest crime, however, may be against his own people, for whom he's presuming to decide that martyrdom through retaliation is their fate. There goes the rank-and-file Muslim's dream of an Islamic state up in an atomic smoke trail.

Meanwhile, can those currently sounding the alarms about nuclear terrorism continue to harmonize? There's cause for optimism--especially if progressives come on board and each faction confronts its respective bias.

The hard right would be advised to admit that continued aggression on our part only steels Al Qaeda's resolve to go the nuclear route. Furthermore, it needs to realize its pride in and reliance on our vaunted military might is an illusion. It's neutralized by any actor--state or non-state--that's in possession of even one tactical nuclear bomb.

For their part, progressives need to come to terms with the inevitability of curtailing civil liberties. Reading Williams's The Al Qaeda Connection should go a long way to convincing them that sealing the southern border tight has nothing to do with Mexicans, everything to do with aspiring terrorists streaming across.

And all of us need to consider the legitimacy of the Islamists's demands. Projecting our traditional Western aims on them, like the conquering Crusades or the Neocons spreading democracy, only reveals our own prejudices. Political Islam, its occasional grandiose fantasies of global Islam aside, mainly seek Western withdrawal from Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

We fear, of course, that honoring their grievances might be interpreted as just another sign of weakness and fuel bin Laden's portrait of us as unable to finish off an opponent. But as long as we talk the bomb out of a firebrand's hands, what skin is it off our back if he spins it as victory?

Finally, we have to deal with the stickiest of all sticking points. Because we make only token attempts to disarm and we're actively developing new tactical nuclear weapons, nobody but nobody heeds our calls for nonproliferation. It hasn't escaped anyone's notice that we only attack those who aren't in possession of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, watch Last Best Chance, recommend it to friends, family, and co-workers, and once they've seen it, draw them out about it. We'll know nuclear terrorism has officially gone prime time when CSI producer Jerry Bruckheimer develops a series called NEST: Nuclear Emergency Search Team. If it's cliffhangers you like, it doesn't get any better than that.


This article first appeared in the Buffalo Beast.

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