Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It's the End of the World as We Know It (But Probably Not)

The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Lieberman, ID-Conn, had a hearing yesterday titled "Nuclear Terrorism: Confronting the Challenges of the Day After." You can watch it at the Committee's website.

Witnesses included Ashton B. Carter, Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Cham E. Dallas, Director, Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, University of Georgia; Roger C. Molander, Senior Research Scientist, RAND Corporation; and John R. Gibb, Director, New York State Emergency Management Office.

Today's press accounts give you the flavor. The Washington Post story quotes Cham Dallas saying: "I definitely conclude the threat is greater and is increasing every year with the march of technology." The Washington Times further quotes Dallas regarding the chances of a nuclear explosion in Washington: "It's inevitable ... I think it's wistful to think that it won't happen by 20 years."

Those predictions are only the latest in a long line that go back to the beginning of the nuclear age. H. G. Wells, Albert Einstein, and Arnold Toynbee, to name just a few, all warned us that we're hopelessly doomed. In 1946, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb himself, assured us that three or four men could blow up New York City with smuggled nukes (see Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, 2004, page 104). John McPhee reported in The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) that "to many people who have participated in the advancement of the nuclear age, it seems not just possible but more and more apparent that nuclear explosions will again take place in cities." Last but not least, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has its "Doomsday Clock" that ever since 1947 has been wavering a few minutes away from midnight; incidentally, the clock currently shows we are 5 minutes away from the end of the world, but don't be unduly alarmed, we were only 2 minutes away back in 1953.

Of course, none of the predictions came true. A wonderful corrective to the alarmist trend was provided last January by John Mueller, Department of Political Science at Ohio State University. His paper, The Atomic Terrorist: Assessing the Likelihood, delivered to the Program on International Security Policy, University of Chicago, reviews the many predictions, past and present, of imminent doom and applies calm reason - that rarest of things! - to a risk analysis about terrorism.

Mueller concludes:

[T]he likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small ... [And] ... the degree to which al-Qaeda--the chief demon group and one of the few terrorist groups to see value in striking the United States--has sought, or is capable of, obtaining such a weapon seems to have been substantially exaggerated.

It's unfortunate that Senator Lieberman's Committee stacked the panel in favor of alarmism at yesterday's hearing. A few voices like Mueller's would have provided a much-needed sanity check.

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