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How to Prevent a Terrorist Mushroom Cloud

Nukes on the Loose

by David Krieger

The images of the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center are nightmare images of unspeakable horror that will forever be a part of our reality.

Imagine, however, another nightmare — that of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city. This is a threat we can no longer ignore. Perhaps today citizens and leaders alike will better understand the seriousness of the nuclear threat.

Our leaders have failed to grasp that our present nuclear weapons policies contribute to the possibility of nuclear terrorism against our country. Large nuclear arsenals do not protect us any more than a missile shield would have prevented the attacks against the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

In 1998 India and Pakistan both demonstrated their nuclear capabilities. Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, is now the only country in the world to recognize the Taliban regime. Should there be a US led war in Afghanistan, it is possible that the Pakistani government could fall to extremists linked to the Taliban, thus putting nuclear weapons into the hands of a regime that might well support and harbor terrorists.

Up to now, the Bush Administration’s primary response to the nuclear threat has been to push for a national missile shield costing billions of dollars, the technology of which is unproven, and which would at best be years away from implementation. A missile shield would likely do irreparable harm to our relations with other countries, countries that we need to join us in the fight against international terrorism, including Russia.

The mad nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and the paltry steps taken to reverse it since the end of the Cold War, have left tens of thousands of nuclear weapons potentially available to terrorists. Today there is no accurate inventory of the world’s nuclear arsenals or weapons-grade fissile materials suitable for making nuclear weapons. Estimates have it, however, that there are currently some 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world. We simply don’t know whether these weapons are adequately controlled, or whether some could already have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

A US blue ribbon commission, headed by former Senate majority leader Howard Baker, has called for spending $3 billion a year over the next ten years to maintain control of the nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration had planned to cut funding for this program from $1.2 billion to $800 million next year.

The US government was put on notice that the World Trade Center was a target of attack by terrorists after an unsuccessful attempt to topple the Trade Center towers in 1993. Yet, despite this previous attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, our intelligence services were ineffectual in protecting it in the face of determined and suicidal terrorists.

Can we continue to ignore the determination of those who hate this country? Is there any reason to believe that they would not seek to attack the United States with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction if they could obtain them?

More than ten years after the end of the Cold War we and the Russians still have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons each with a total of some 4,500 of them on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. The Russians have been urging the US to move faster in reducing the size of the nuclear arsenals in both countries, while we have been largely indifferent to their entreaties.

Since the inauguration of the Bush presidency, the US has been increasing its unilateralism, demonstrating its disregard for international law. But we cannot combat terrorism unilaterally, and our disregard for the rule of law will only cause others to follow in our footsteps, making the world an even more dangerous place.

Our response to the despicable terrorism perpetrated against us must be multilateral and consistent with the rule of international law. We should urge the United Nations to convene a World Peace Conference of leaders of all nations to find solutions to the outstanding problems of war and other forms of violence. Unless these problems are solved we will never be able to eradicate terrorism.

Our vulnerability demands that we hear from and respond to all who have grievances. We need justice under the law, but acts of vengeance will only make matters worse, leading to even greater threat. “The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” None of us wants to awaken to see the image of a mushroom cloud and know that one of our cities has been destroyed. The destruction of the World Trade Center should send powerful warning signals.

The elimination of nuclear weapons can no longer be a back-burner issue. The danger of the use of nuclear weapons has actually increased in the wake of the terrorist threats. We must act to reduce and eliminate the nuclear arsenals of the world as if our very futures depended upon it because it is clear that they do. CP David Krieger, an attorney and political scientist, is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. For further perspectives on the terrorist attacks and ideas on waging peace, visit the Foundation’s web site.