Rethinking the Unthinkable

History seems to have cheated us out of the freedom from anxiety we expected after the Cold War ended. When the Soviet Union collapsed, no power on earth appeared capable of threatening our security. And for a decade, until September 11, we enjoyed the happy illusion that we had safely arrived in a future that belonged entirely to America. The shattering of that idyll may explain why so many of us who suffered no direct loss last September nonetheless feel we did lose something we had counted on. Victory in Afghanistan has scarcely put to rest anxieties about terrorism; the war, we are told, will move on to its next phase as America gears up for a long struggle with shadowy enemies. Meanwhile, the spiral of violence in Israel raises passions in the Middle East to a boil and increases the chances that terror will again reach halfway across the world to strike Americans at home.

Scarcely a day passes without serious discussion about terrorists' potential acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. For several weeks last fall, according to Time, intelligence agencies weighed an agent's report that terrorists had obtained a portable, 10-kiloton nuclear bomb stolen from Russia and were about to explode it in New York. Congressional hearings have explored the potential damage from a "dirty" bomb (a conventional explosive designed to scatter radioactive material); in the worst-case scenario, an area the size of Manhattan would become uninhabitable. And the administration warns that Iraq, Iran, or North Korea might form an alliance with terrorists, giving them weapons that no state would overtly use against us.

These speculations generally follow the same pattern. After raising an alarm, experts and insiders immediately seek to quiet fears: The rumored 10-kiloton bomb didn't check out, the worst-case dirty bomb likely would kill those who tried to carry it, and there's no evidence that any state has helped terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction. Still, September 11 has made catastrophe credible. There really are people out there willing to carry out mass murder, and we may not be able to stop them.

The first priorities in our response ought to be the obvious ones: securing peace in the Mideast, attacking terrorist networks, and improving security measures. But policy also ought to provide for the contingency that terrorists may one day succeed. This is a dismal subject but a necessary one. We must stare desperate facts in the face and try to minimize the harm that may be done to us.

The situation today is different from the 1950s and 1960s, when the danger was of a general nuclear war. Now the most plausible threat is an attack on a limited number of targets, two of which carry by far the greatest risk: Washington and New York. Long-neglected urban public-health and civil-defense systems require preparation and investment to deal with such potential catastrophes as massive radioactive contamination. This is not just a matter for the professionals; the public needs to know what to do and what is being done.

The risk to Washington raises worries about a potential breakdown in our system of government. Under present law, Congress might be unable to function for an extended time in the event of a terrorist attack that took the lives of many of its members. While governors can make interim Senate appointments, the procedures for replacing members of the House vary from state to state. To avoid risking a period of extra-constitutional rule, we need to guarantee rapid reconstitution of the House. Ambiguities in the constitutional provisions for presidential succession need to be clarified. And the Congress should consider dispersing some federal agencies, such as the FBI or even Cabinet departments; there is no reason why so much of the government needs to be concentrated in so small an area.

The current talk about nuclear terrorism may seem like a relapse of Cold War jitters. Let us hope that is all it ever amounts to. But rather than depend on that hope, we should make calm adjustments to our institutions and policies, and get on with the larger public business before us -- including a peace in the Mideast, not least of all for our own peace.

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