On September 11, 2001, enemies of the United States killed 2,973 Americans.
A pin prick. An insignificant blow to the most powerful nation in the history of the world. During the same year, 42,116 people died in automobile crashes in the United States.
To date, the war in Iraq has resulted in 2,662 combat deaths, including 2,119 killed in action, according to the latest figures from the Department of Defense. Battle deaths in World War I were more than 53,000; in World War II more than 290,000. In the Battle of the Bulge alone (December 16, 1944 - January 25, 1945) the Americans and British suffered nearly 81,000 casualties, including more than 10,000 killed in action.
Thus, in both the attacks of September 11, and their aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has suffered little. The situation not only could be much worse, but it seems almost inevitable that it will become very much worse, perhaps very soon.
Graham Allison, of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
," wrote in the January/February, 2004, issue of Foreign Affairs
A few numbers starkly illustrate the scale of the problem the United States now faces in trying to control the spread of nuclear weapons materials. Just eight countries -- China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- are known to have nuclear weapons. In addition, the CIA estimates that North Korea has enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. And two dozen additional states possess research reactors with enough highly enriched uranium (heu) to build at least one nuclear bomb on their own. According to best estimates, the global nuclear inventory includes more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, and enough heu and plutonium for 240,000 more.
Hundreds of these weapons are currently stored in conditions that leave them vulnerable to theft by determined criminals, who could then sell them to terrorists. Even more "nascent nukes" (the heu and plutonium that are the only critical ingredients for making nuclear bombs) are at risk. Almost every month, someone somewhere is apprehended trying to smuggle or steal nuclear materials or weapons.
In making his case against Saddam Hussein, President Bush argued, "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of uranium a little bigger than a softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year." What the president failed to mention is that with the same quantity of heu, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas could do the same. Once built, nuclear weapons could be smuggled across U.S. borders with little difficulty. Of the seven million cargo containers that will arrive at U.S. ports this year, for example, only two percent will be opened for inspection. And once on U.S. soil, those weapons would likely be used. Prior to September 11, 2001, many experts argued that terrorists were unlikely to kill large numbers of people, because they sought not to maximize victims but to win publicity and sympathy for their causes. After the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, however, few would disagree with President Bush's warning that if al Qaeda gets nuclear weapons, it will use them against the United States "in a heartbeat." Indeed, Osama bin Laden's press spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has announced that the group aspires "to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children," in response to casualties supposedly inflicted on Muslims by the United States and Israel.
As you read this, a very ordinary man is driving a nondescript van through downtown San Francisco, planning to park the truck, and detonate his cargo, somewhere near Telegraph Hill. Or perhaps, more sensitive to American history, he's cruising near the Concord Common in Massachusetts. Or yet again, considering the complacency of those living far from famous or historic or political targets, the truck may be parked in Boise, set to entirely obliterate that pleasant city.
We need not speculate on the effects of the detonation of a nuclear bomb at street level in a major American city. The Defense Department, Congressional experts, universities, and think tanks have long been in the business of studying such things. For example, "The Effects of Nuclear War
," by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (May, 1979), set out a description of what would be expected from a one-megaton bomb set off at ground level in Detroit. Assuming such a blast took place at night (rather than in the middle of a busy work day) it was estimated that out of a 1977 population of about 1.3 million persons within 75 miles of the site of the explosion, about 220,000 would die outright, with an additional 420,000 injuries. Obviously, an explosion during the work day, or in a much larger city, or one with much greater population density (such as New York), would greatly increase these figures. Thus, terrorists could inflict in the blink of an eye casualties equivalent to those suffered over four years of war after December 7, 1941.
I have recently wondered about the reaction of the United States to such an event. Not necessarily the reaction of the nation as a whole, or of the Government as such, but instead the reaction of individuals, and specific leaders.
It is important to consider what you would be willing to do. I don't mean "you" as some statistical representation of a typical American. Nor do I mean to have you wonder what others, many others, or even most others might do, let alone what you believe they should
do. I mean you, very personally and specifically. What would you do?
Would you enlist in the Army?
Would you encourage your sons to enlist?
Would you be willing to pay 1/3 more in income taxes to support a global war?
Would you be willing to go without electric power two days a week to conserve, and support military production?
Would you vote for Congressmen who would enact legislation to impose rationing of food, gasoline, and clothing?
Just as important, consider carefully the reactions of our leaders. A great many people have put themselves forward, or been called, to positions of leadership in the United States. It is right that we turn to them for wisdom and guidance. If you object for some reason to my list, please substitute your own. Consider how you would expect any of these leaders to react:
Harry Reid, Leader of the Democratic Party in the United States Senate;
John Kerry, Massachusetts Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate;
John L. Hennessy, 10th President of Stanford University;
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., Publisher, The New York Times
Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA);
John Murtha, Congressman from Pennsylvania's 12th District;
Ibrahim Hooper, Council on American-Islamic Relations;
Madeleine Albright, Former Secretary of State.
I am put in mind of the young couple whose home was broken into. They were both beaten before she was brutally raped. Both survived the attack. Afterwards, the husband said, "There was nothing I could do. He had a gun."
And so he does.