Politics & Policy

The Yuccafication of America

Political elites commit themselves to noble goals, and then nuke the best means available to achieve those goals.

What do Yucca Mountain and Guantanamo Bay have in common?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff. Both have Spanish names. Neither is a great spot for a family vacation. Each is controlled by the federal government.

Oh, and both are essential tools in wars a lot of people claim they want to win.

See, Yucca Mountain is where the government wants to keep incredibly dangerous substances — nuclear waste — until we figure out a better way to handle it.

Guantanamo Bay is where the government keeps incredibly dangerous people — jihadi enemy combatants — until we figure out a better way to handle them.

#ad#Victory in the war against climate change is inconceivable without nuclear power. Even if we turned America’s breadbasket into ethanol-corn and solar farms, we wouldn’t come close to reducing carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s avowed goal, compared with John McCain’s target of 60 percent). Even if every American lived like a Prius-driving, vegan eco-feminist, we’d still fall far short. A recent MIT study found that even the homeless in America have twice the carbon footprint of the global average.

Clean, efficient, safe nuclear energy could force enormous savings in CO2 emissions, replacing coal- and gas-burning power plants on a scale solar never can. It also would boost America’s “energy independence,” a phrase environmentalists use to enlist support from Americans immune to climate fear-mongering.

Is it a silver bullet? Surely not. But expanding our nuclear-energy infrastructure belongs near the top of the list of options for those who say we must do “everything in our power” to stop global warming. (I’m not one of those people, by the way.)

But generating nuclear power produces radioactive waste, so we really should find a safe place to put it. Yucca Mountain, in the Nevada desert, is just such a place. But anti-nuclear environmentalists have done everything they can to keep it from opening, largely because having a safe waste repository would make nuclear power more attractive.

Which brings me back to Guantanamo Bay, where the Yuccafication process is nearly complete.

Much like Yucca Mountain, lots of things are said about Gitmo that aren’t true. Yucca is derided as unsafe, when its biggest shortcoming is that its designers can’t promise that in 10,000 years a passerby who digs up waste won’t be exposed to much more than a few chest X-rays’ worth of radiation.

Gitmo, likewise, is routinely lumped in with the more legitimate outrage over mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and the more complicated controversies over renditions and CIA black sites. In reality, argues Andrew McCarthy in the National Review, Gitmo “is probably the most scrutinized prison in modern history.” McCarthy, who as assistant U.S. attorney prosecuted the first World Trade Center bombers, is the author of an invaluable new book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad. His assessment of Guantanamo continues: “It is also among the most humane, complete with halal meals, a bursting library, lush recreation facilities, communal prayer breaks and even white-gloved U.S. soldiers — Muslims only, please — delivering to each detainee a Koran (U.S. government-issued, even though the inmates believe it commands them to kill Americans).”

Nonetheless, Gitmo will soon be closed because President Bush and his likely successors all want it closed. OK, fine. But here’s the thing: If you want to fight a war on terrorism, or any war, you need to put captured combatants someplace — someplace other than a conventional U.S. prison, where they’re treated like any other criminals.

McCarthy prosecuted jihadi terrorists as criminals in the 1990s, but he rightly scorns the idea that we can treat terrorists like bank robbers. That Clinton-era strategy “can be considered a success only if one’s chief preoccupation is due process. Viewed through the prism of national security, the effort was an abysmal failure.” According to McCarthy, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to 9/11, only 29 mostly low-level operatives were caught and tried in the U.S., costing taxpayers millions and doing little to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

The halls of Congress echo with righteous denunciations of Gitmo’s alleged horrors, but silence reigns supreme when it comes time to offer serious alternatives. Likewise, Yucca Mountain is ridiculed as a white elephant by the same politicians who want to pour billions into ethanol and solar power.

The Yuccafication of Gitmo, or the Gitmoizing of Yucca Mountain, are two versions of the same story. Political elites passionately declare their commitment to a desired end — victory in this war or that — but are feckless about providing means to those ends.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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