The Corner

Time to Ask Tough Questions about Terror

Bret Stephens ends his column yesterday with the following paragraph:

One day a Pathfinder with tinted windows may park itself in Times Square with something more than propane tanks in the back seat. We may not be able to stop it. But we will live more securely if the driver of that car knows exactly what we intend to do next.

If I may be allowed to parse: One day some terrorist is going to drive a panel truck (it probably won’t be an SUV) into Manhattan or Washington. On the bed of that truck will be a large, cumbersome, relatively unsophisticated (by American or Russian standards) nuclear weapon. It will be far too large to put on a missile or even drop from any but a very large aircraft, which in any event would not be able to penetrate U.S. airspace nor the airspace of any country targeted by various jihadists. The two fissile pits will be made from highly enriched uranium — a far easier nuclear fuel to make that the alternative, plutonium 239. Indeed, that HEU might not even be enriched to 90 percent (the optimum level for weapons-grade fuel), which, as the Iranians are learning, is not so easy to do, even if you master rudimentary enrichment. But no matter, lower grade HEU can work just as well. You just need more of it to reach critical mass, making the bomb rather heavy and large, but if your delivery device is a truck, so what?

The two pieces of sub-critical HEU will slam together after one is fired down an artillery tube at the other. The bomb will yield between 10 and 15 kilotons (about the power of Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima and based on the same design) and will erase (if detonated in Times Square) everything up to about 50th Street and down below 34th Street, with fires and flying debris reaching at least 72nd and 14th Streets and probably crossing the Hudson to the west and reaching the East River in the other direction. Since the device would be detonated at ground level, fallout would be immense and the extent and dispersal patterns would depend on the prevailing winds that day and for the next 48 hours. Manhattan would be uninhabitable, potentially for years. At least 100,000 people would die, probably many more, and untold more would be injured or suffer radiation poisoning or deadly mutation.

There are a non-trivial number of people in the world who would very much like to do this to us. It won’t be easy, and they may never get the chance. They may also be caught in the act of trying at any of the various stages of the plot. These people are, however, probably not deterrable.

This much the conventional wisdom on terrorism has right. But there are also a handful of states that would like to see this happen, or at least would not object, and may lend a hand in helping it happen, especially if they calculate that their role in the act will appear sufficiently ambiguous to minimize the chance of American retaliation. And then there are the surrounding societies that by turns and to various degrees support, oppose, or look the other way at the terrorist and ancillary activities that go on in their midst every day.

Are these actors also utterly undeterrable? The conventional wisdom says yes. Stephens suggests, maybe not. One thing is certain: As a nation, we haven’t asked. Our foreign policy and security establishments have not explored and debated. The issue is simply one that cannot be spoken of.

Stephens deserves credit for raising it, even in an oblique, terse, fractional way. To discuss these matters is to risk one’s reputation and perhaps livelihood. But the stakes are high enough that reputations will have to be risked. One would hope also that the stakes are high enough that those inclined to pounce on heterodox and — let’s begin to be frank — gruesome-sounding inquiries will perhaps hold their tongues in the interests of intellectual inquiry and national security. (One can hope this while suspecting that the hope is unlikely to be realized.)

Declaratory policy is what nations say about how and when and why they might retaliate in various circumstances. The purpose — and hope — is that by making terrible threats, we can make follow-through on those threats unnecessary by staying the hand of those whose hatred can never be assuaged but whose innate senses of self-preservation, rationality, and (yes) fear can be leveraged in our favor. Conventional wisdom and official policy alike hold that declaratory policy has no relevance or role to play in the fight against terror.

This is an unexamined assumption — a reflex or, better, a recoiling from where the inquiry, not to say the conclusion, must lead. It is understandable that no one wishes to wander into that dark, monster-infested forest – nor, worse, to be seen to do so. But sooner rather than later, someone — several of us — must. Stephens is saying: Let’s get on with it. He’s right.

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