Terror by Night

“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” Ps 91:5-7

The biblical Jews had a lot to be afraid of. Through their history, they were conquered, enslaved, occupied, and persecuted. They had to deal with threats from the north and the south. They also had to deal with drought, disease, and internal unrest. But they sang songs like this that reassured them of God’s love and protection for them.

The nightmare of my generation was the Russians launching a pre-emptive attack with weapons we knew worked. I grew up in Omaha. We saw the B52 bombers flying every day from the nearby Strategic Air Command Headquarters. We knew that there were always some in the air because if the missiles did start falling, there would be no base or any Omaha, and the airborne planes would be part of the force that retaliated. This was so real to us that one of my neighbors built a bomb shelter for his family in his front yard.

This generation’s nightmare is a nuclear device set off by radical Islamists in a major US city.

We went to war in Iraq because of that fear. The fear that Iran is gaining some nuclear capability has us lining them up in our sites. We are throwing billions of dollars in military aid at Pakistan to keep their nuclear capability in the hands of the military. We even give money to Russia to help them gather up all of the weapons that they have scattered through the now independent parts of the collapsed Soviet Union.

So let’s say that that radical Islamists will somehow acquire nuclear materials. Could they build a bomb?

The practical answer is yes, they could blow up this very toxic material and perhaps render the city block blast area uninhabitable as a result.

Could they actually create a bomb that could result in the sort of city leveling devastation that our current weapons are capable of?

Never. Not even close.

They couldn’t even create the equivalent of the much less sophisticated bomb that we dropped on Japan.

Creating a successful atomic chain reaction which results in the explosion, is very difficult. That’s why governments have to test them over and over again in order to make sure that they have something that works.

It takes a minimum of 130 lbs of enriched uranium or 22 lbs of plutonium to make a bomb. Plutonium, though, is very difficult to obtain and very difficult to handle because it is so radioactive. Enriched uranium is somewhat more widely available and much easier to handle. But it also requires a much bigger bang to get going.

The other challenge is that the radioactive material is constantly affecting its surroundings. So the electronics needed to trigger the bomb break down after only a week of being exposed to the radioactive source.

The idea of a lone terrorist carrying a suitcase into Central Park and leveling New York City is fiction. The minimum size for this sort of home-made bomb would be an SUV. Creating it requires a large team, lots of money, lots of expertise, and some method to assemble the whole thing undetected shortly before they plan to detonate it.

If they are unable to test it, it will fail. In order to test it they probably need more like 260 or 390 lbs of enriched uranium and some sophisticated underground testing facility that they can successfully use only once because the results of their test will be immediately detected by worldwide monitors.

I’m not suggesting that we ignore our responsibility as a nuclear nation to help the rest of the world manage these dangerous materials. I also support worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons including discouraging new nations from developing their own.

What I am suggesting is that we don’t use this irrational fear to guide our policies and justify our actions. Someday our children will look at this crisis the same way that we now look at the fear that drove us to build all of those bombers and all of those bomb shelters. The B52’s are still in use. For all I know the bomb shelters might still be in use too. As I recall it was a great makeout spot.

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