When I began this column after September 11, I chose to name it "Letter From Ground Zero" because it seemed to me that at the heart of the new darkness that had descended upon the world was the peril of annihilation posed by weapons of mass destruction, including, above all, nuclear weapons. The weapon of mass destruction that has actually been used, of course, has been "weaponized" anthrax—delivered, however, only in minuscule amounts. The world awaits the terrorists' decision whether to follow up these retail murders with mass murder.
Meanwhile, the newsmedia in this country, as if in obedience to some secret signal, are suddenly awash in stories dealing with nuclear weapons and nuclear danger. The discussion has developed with stunning rapidity, leading in some quarters to calls for the use of nuclear weapons of a kind not heard since the cold war—if then. The stories come in two categories: warnings of attacks upon the United States and warnings of attacks by the United States. A raft of stories described the unpreparedness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an attack on American nuclear reactors—attacks that could contaminate thousands of square miles. An article in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh is the most detailed of many that discuss the danger that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, whether through theft by disaffected elements of the Pakistani nuclear establishment or by the overthrow of the military dictator President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, for his part, arrested Bashiruddin Mahmood, a leader for more than thirty years of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and, more recently, a fervent and active supporter of the Taliban. A story in the New York Times offered an unnerving glimpse into the mentality of Islamic nuclear extremism. Mahmood, it reports, is the author of a book distressingly titled The Mechanics of Doomsday and Life After Death and also believes that the world's energy crisis can perhaps be solved by tapping the energy of genies—"beings made of fire" described in the Koran. A cover story by Gregg Easterbrook in The New Republic called "The Big One" offers an overview of the dangers of nuclear terrorism.
The most alarming stories, however, have been those warning of a direct nuclear attack by Osama bin Laden's organization. His passionate desire to acquire nuclear weapons has long been known, if little noticed. In the trial of those engaged in the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, one of his operatives described his failed attempt to buy a cylinder of enriched uranium. In October, UPI's Richard Sale disclosed that according to "a half-dozen serving and former US Government and intelligence officials," the Bush Administration was concerned that "accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden might try to use a small nuclear weapon in a super-spectacular strike to decapitate the US political leadership." The other day, George W. Bush made the concern official: Bin Laden, he said, is "seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons." Bush notably gave no assurance that bin Laden did not already have nuclear weapons. "If he doesn't have them, we will work hard to make sure he doesn't," he said. "If he does, we'll make sure he doesn't deploy them."
Visions of American cities blown to kingdom come have reminded many of America's own very large arsenal of nuclear weapons. Might it be useful in the circumstances? Some commentators think it will be. We are not condemned merely to be the victims of mass destruction, they point out; we can be the perpetrators of it as well. I was alerted to one of these proposals by an unexpected source—the New York Post's gossip columnist Liz Smith. She wished to commend an article in Time magazine by Charles Krauthammer, who, she noted with approval, wanted the United States to wage "total war" against its new enemies. "Have we told Iraq, the Saudis and Pakistan," she asked, that "if there is a nuclear attack…by anyone, we will hold them accountable because they have harbored and created these terrorists? We could wipe these countries off the map, and they should be very afraid of that." Krauthammer lived up to Smith's billing. The Bush Administration's policy of trying to avoid civilian casualties might have to go by the board, he thought. In the "total war" he wanted, the distinction was a "nicety" that the United States could no longer afford. Krauthammer had only one country—Iraq—slated for annihilation. In the Gulf War, he claimed, the Administration of Bush Senior had warned President Saddam Hussein that if he used biological or chemical weapons he would be met with weapons that would "wipe Iraq off the face of the earth." Krauthammer wanted to know whether we were still ready to do this in the event of a terrorist use of a nuclear weapon on our soil. "If we are not prepared to wage total war we risk disaster on a scale we have never seen and can barely imagine," he wrote. Another commentator, The New Republic's Easterbrook, had an entire region—the Islamic Middle East—in his sights. At the end of an appearance on Greenfield at Large on CNN, he announced that he wanted to leave his audience "with one message." It was that "the search for terrorist atomic weapons would be of great benefit to the Muslim peoples of the world in addition to…people of the United States and Western Europe, because if an atomic warhead goes off in Washington—say, in the current environment or anything like it—in the twenty-four hours that followed, a hundred million Muslims would die as US nuclear bombs rained down on every conceivable military target in a dozen Muslim countries."
"Wipe Iraq off the face of the earth," "a hundred million Muslims would die": Listening in shock to these phrases, it occurred to me that wiping a large nation "off the face of the earth"—not to speak of annihilating a dozen nations (and doing so merely because they had "harbored" terrorists)—is something that has never been done. To be fair, Krauthammer and Easterbrook wanted to consider the act only in the context of retaliation, and neither stated unequivocally that he would counsel actually carrying out the threat even then. On the other hand, neither pointed out that the deed they described would, if enacted, be a crime outside all human experience and would blacken the name of the United States in human memory forever. The darkness deepens. Have just two months of "war on terror" brought us to this?