The Bush and Blair administrations are right about one thing: Terrorism threatens our world as never before. Terrorism is the great game of pain that is now playing out as power politics in many parts of the world.. The “winners” are the ones who can cause the most harm and horror, yet can harden themselves to be unfeeling and unmoved by that harm and horror. The “losers” are the rest of us.
Humans are naturally sympathetic beings: We learn by imitation. We perceive ourselves in others. We can imagine emotions and empathize. We can love. We can grieve. Terrorism is inhuman. It requires unusual mental states of mind. To choose to be inhuman requires extreme confidence and some form of moral immunity. Terrorists need words and rhetoric and ways to say they themselves personally did not choose to do it. For example,
* by seeing themselves as actors in historical drama;
* by saying their actions are caused by those they hurt;
* by self-righteously doing the will of God.
War is formalized terrorism by a state, and a war on terrorism is sure a cycle of escalating horror.
The Bush and Blair administrations are right about a second thing: 9-11 changed everything. What changed was the scale of non-state terrorism. Previously in history, such terrorism was limited, for example, to killing people by assassination, hijacking an air plane, bombing a market, blowing a hole in a ship, or using a car bomb to tear the facade off a building. Such terrorist actions were most often in remote areas with least security. In contrast, the 9-11 terrorists completely destroyed two of the greatest buildings in America, in the very heart of America’s greatest city, and then hit the headquarters of American military command in the national capital. The political and economic consequences of 9-11 are still beyond measure.
What could plausibly be an escalation beyond that?
The Bush and Blair administrations are right about a third thing: It is technology that gives non-state terrorists ways to match the terror of the nation states’ war machines. On one hand, our globally interlocked, technological economy is more vulnerable than its size suggests. Hurt it any where and it hurts every where. On the other hand, modest knowledge and modest equipment can create germs for warfare and poison gas. But biological and poison gas terrorism, while deadly and horrible, would still be localized, contained, and the consequences containable.
But the Bush and Blair administrations are wrong to now mount a war on Iraq in order to find biological and chemical weapons. Iraq may or may not have such weapons, and if so, might or might not have distributed them to terrorists. More importantly, this war is proof that our governments did not learn the lesson of 9-11. The terrorists that attacked America did not build or buy the airliners they used, and did not smuggle them into America from Iraq. They simply weaponized the large scale technology that was already in America waiting to be used. What other technology is now waiting to be weaponized and would be an escalation beyond 9-11?
While the world is watching the war in Iraq, there is a nightmare waiting at the back door. No one seems to be paying attention to the likelihood of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power station. The horror and economic consequences of breaching a nuclear power reactor would certainly exceed 9-11. It would be the escalation that matches the American war machine now in action in Iraq and elsewhere.
Even best-case nuclear security seems to be a sham. The UK is a militarized nation long experienced with terrorism. The UK has sided with the USA knowing that this might make it the target of more terrorism. Therefore, the UK’s nuclear reactors are very well protected, right? Wrong. Just to demonstrate this, Greenpeace on October 14, 2002, had 150 activists breach security at the UK’s Sizewell reactor. Then things tightened up, right? Wrong. On January 13, 2003, 30 Greenpeace activists again penetrated security at the very same reactor site and climbed onto the dome. The British government’s security response was to simply deny these events, but has recently admitted them. Fortunately for us, Greenpeace carries banners, not bombs.
Is nuclear plant security any better in America? The US is the world’s most militarized nation knowing that its current actions make it the target of terrorism. What is their priority on nuclear plant security? The International Nuclear Safety Center, headquartered at the US government’s National Argonne Laboratories, publicly posts handy maps showing even the most amateur terrorists where the world’s nuclear reactors are all located.
As best case examples of nuclear security, the US and UK are not a cause of confidence. Nuclear security is worse in the rest of the world. Less militarized nations, who know they have no enemies, probably cannot imagine someone shooting their nuclear plant with a military missile, or crashing a commercial plane into it, or placing a bomb in the underwater cooling pipes, or sabotaging it from the inside. Once state and non-state terrorists bring out their rhetoric that they are all doing the will of God, then some private person with a wrong bent of mind might believe the rhetoric and independently act on it. .
To severely damage the US or the UK, or France or Russia, it is not necessary to breach the nation’s own reactor. A neighbor’s reactor would do. To “win” a war of escalating horror, any reactor anywhere in the world would do. Worrisome are the reactors in the do-gooder nations who naively think their self-image protects them, including here Canada. Sweden, and Finland. However, most worrisome are the reactors in the former communist countries of Lithuania, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Russia. Many of these reactors lack concrete containment domes and suffer from lax management and poor financing. Chechnyan terrorists or Al-Qaida, or anyone wishing to seem to be these terrorists, may seek revenge by breaching a reactor. Anyone, anywhere, could do it, and the consequences would not be contained or containable.
Proponents and opponents of the Iraq war would be wise to both agree that we need better security at nuclear power plants every where in the world.
FLOYD RUDMIN is professor of social and community psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway, where he also teaches in the Master’s Program in Peace and Conflict Transformation. He is a board member of Science for Peace and vice-president of the Canadian Peace Research & Education Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org