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."