In the spring of 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan took me into his confidence. Leaning back in his seat as we jetted to yet another state primary, he told me he'd been thinking about outer space. To be more precise, about our ability to track "a glove lost by an astronaut that is still circling the Earth up there," and yet our inability to stop missiles "that are coming at us."
While he didn't actually use the words "Star Wars," this was Reagan's first public embrace of a space-based ballistic missile defense, as Frances FitzGerald notes in her definitive book, Way Out There in the Blue.
Having always liked Reagan, since interviewing him during his first run for governor in 1966, I didn't want to disabuse him of one of his pet ideas. Reagan needed those notions, never grounded in reality but always comforting, like props in a child's fantasy world.
I bring it up now because the new Bush Administration is determined to spend $60 billion on building Reagan's space toy. While I'm as eager as anyone to create monuments to Reagan's memory, why not finally build that training center for high school dropouts in South Los Angeles that he promised as governor? They still need one. Even carving Reagan's image on Mt. Rushmore next to Teddy Roosevelt and the rest would be cheaper.
One has to respect the nostalgia that grips Republicans when they think of winning the Star Wars for the Gipper. But despite having spent tens of billions already on Star Wars technology, stopping a missile hidden among thousands of cheaply deployed decoys will just not work. This kind of ICBM defense is even sillier in an age where the only likely enemies are a few pariah nations bent not in defeating us in battle but in blackmailing us through terror. A nuclear bomb in a suitcase smuggled in with the bales of marijuana that enter the country daily would do the job much better. Of course a terrorist with half a brain wouldn't go nuclear; he'd poison our water or air. But let's not get too real here; we're talking Star Wars, an obsession of such enduring intensity that, in the end, proponents will not give up until something very costly is built, and I for one am tired of denying them their folly.
It's time to throw in the towel and give the defense contractors, who have been lobbying for this boondoggle long and hard, their reward for having bought the president of their choice. Build Star Wars, big and bold, but build it not as a weapon, which frightens even the Europeans. No, build it as a game, a World Wide Web Star Wars theme park. Let's build it on a scale never before imagined, where you get to virtually shoot down objects in space, and death only comes to those who dare mention that it's just a game. But for other nations to not get nervous, I say let's build those theme parks in every land and language so that even the poorest nations lacking in indoor plumbing can have the most up-to-the-minute imitation of space-based war.
Think of it: In the most forlorn outpost of Taliban-run Afghanistan, old Osama bin Laden, long known as a computer nut, can sit on some rock outcropping pounding away on his laptop, zapping virtual heathen capitals of the world. His agents will have secured the latest Star Wars add-ons, allowing him to pretend to exterminate millions with the push of button on his wireless Palm Pilot, even when in the outhouse.
Of course, no one will get killed because this will be virtual war, but there will be winners and losers depending on which side has acquired the most elaborate toys. The international arms bazaars will be bursting with the latest innovative devices; venture capitalists will invest heavily in cutting edge "Star Wars, the Game" technology. The ultimate reward, while not quite as satisfying as incinerated cities, will be much more profitable: a commanding market share in what's guaranteed to be the very newest of the new economy.
Not realistic enough? You think true fanatics will only go for blood and flesh carnage? Huh, shows just how little you know about the new world order. People and pain don't matter anymore, or we would be spending that $60 billion slated for Star Wars on vaccines and clean water in an old-fashioned terrorist abatement program.
Terrorists are no longer motivated by righting real world wrongs. What matters to them is the illusion of power while doing God's work. That's why God created violent space-based video games, so that the lunatics who speak in the Lord's name can be harmlessly diverted.