On 9/11, terrorists attacked the United States, and we lost two skyscrapers. The next time it may be a city.
If you doubt this, read William Langewiesche's chilling new book, The Atomic Bazaar. Russia has enough highly enriched uranium lying around to make tens of thousands of Hiroshima-type bombs. The Hiroshima design was so simple that Oppenheimer's boys never tested it before dropping it on Hiroshima. Expecting none of Russia's uranium to get into terrorist hands is as realistic as expecting the United States to end illegal immigration or the heroin trade. Borders are porous, and the folks guarding all that uranium in Russia are not paid very well.
Since the city we are most likely to lose is the one in which I live, Washington D.C., I may not be around to write about the event after the fact. So instead, let me write about it before the fact.
Indeed, more of us need to write about it before the fact. This is not only because "imagining the real" (in Robert Jay Lifton's fine phrase) may encourage governments to get more serious about preventive action, but also because when the event comes, it will be understood in terms of the narratives that preceded and framed it. We need to create those narratives now. (Share this column with a friend.)
We already know the narrative frame that will be put around the smoking ruins of a U.S. city by the national security apparatus and conservatives. We saw it starting on September 12, 2001. We will be told we were attacked because we have not militarized our society enough, and the attack will be used to justify more military spending, new military actions abroad, and further sacrifice of civil liberties at home. When you live so deep inside militarism that you cannot see outside it, military solutions become a reflex reaction--even to problems that militarism caused. The poison becomes the cure. If you think the post-9/11 smorgasbord of Abu Ghraib, illegal domestic wiretapping, and attacks on media and academic critics were bad, wait 'til you see what happens after a city goes missing.
Our task is to create a counternarrative that joins the dots in a different way. Anti-nuclear activists did this in the 1980s. The bumper-sticker version of their counternarrative was "end the race or end the race." They recoded each development in the arms race not as a move toward further security, but as one step closer to Armageddon.
What we need now is a broadly disseminated public narrative that foresees a nuclear terrorist attack while connecting it to different dots. If the so-called realists tell a naive, utopian story about a world in which we can sleep safely alongside vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons and enriched uranium as long as we wiretap enough people and build enough radiation detectors, "our" story will be about shortsighted leaders who sought security in stockpiling weapons that could only endanger the U.S. public as they leaked into new hands, and who lacked the imagination to drastically reduce the numbers of these weapons once the Cold War ended.
This story builds to its climax with each squandered opportunity--the failure of the Baruch Plan in the 1940s, the insistence on building the H-bomb over the protests of Oppenheimer and others, the failure to end nuclear testing in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, the indifference to Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev, and the lack of seriousness about dismantling the infrastructure of the arms race in the 1990s. Our story, lodged in the crevices of public discourse, builds to "we warned you" when the attack comes and points the finger at leaders who, treating commitments to disarmament as hollow pieties, were too vain to see that every weapon eventually escapes its owners' control.
The meaning of epochal events is never foreordained. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many assumed that the use of nuclear weapons in war would continue. They advocated civil defense at home and preemptive strikes on the Soviets abroad. Instead, in part due to the strenuous efforts of the scientists who founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the response that prevailed, uneasily, was "never again"--a response, more deeply ingrained with each year of nuclear non-use, that led to what security specialists call the "nuclear taboo." Even if Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not lead to the renunciation of nuclear weapons, they did make it possible for national leaders to back away from normalizing the use of these weapons in war.
Those who play with fire get burned by it. If the next Hiroshima should be in the United States, will we be like the battered spouse who goes back for more, or will we reconsider our tumultuous love affair with nuclear weapons?