It is late October 2007. President Bush, who narrowly won re-election in 2004, is about to call up the first of 100,000 newly recruited regular-army troops for duty in Iraq. The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden are still unknown. But it’s a sunny and crisp fall day in Washington, D.C., and our nation’s government is hard and happily at work. The Supreme Court and Congress are in session, and the White House and Pentagon are busily planning how best to use those 100,000 new troops.
At 9:50 a.m. on this sunny day, a blinding flash emanates from somewhere on Capitol Hill. The Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House are instantly vaporized. After the radioactive dust settles on the streets and buildings of Washington, all that remains of Capitol Hill is a gigantic crater.
Because the nuclear weapon was smuggled in on the ground, the destruction is not as great as an airborne weapon would have caused. The Pentagon is in flames and heavily damaged, but some of the people working in it survived. All are badly burned by heat or radiation, however, and most will not survive for long. Much of the former CIA headquarters in Langley also survived, as did many of its personnel.
Our nation’s leadership is decimated. The President and Vice President have vanished without a trace. So have nearly all of Congress and the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. So has the Secretary of State, who had been testifying before Congress. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., California), who became Speaker of the House after the 2006 congressional elections, is the only person remaining in the constitutional line of succession. She survived only because she was in California visiting her family.
Although there is no Supreme Court Justice left to swear her in, Rep. Pelosi is in an unmarked military jet on her way to Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. There she will join the surviving military and political leaders and be sworn in as President. While on her way, she receives a call from surviving military leaders asking her to authorize immediate, massive thermonuclear counterstrikes against Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan—all probable sources of the smuggled nuke. She also receives reports that Pakistan and North Korea, each of which possess crude but serviceable intercontinental ballistic missiles, have threatened immediate nuclear retaliation for any strike. Russia and China also have warned against any action that might produce radioactive fallout over their territory. The fate of the our nation, and possibly of the human species, depends upon Rep. Pelosi’s decision. Surviving military and political leaders expect her to make that decision within hours after arriving at Cheyenne Mountain.
Sound like a paranoid fantasy? Think again. Back here in 2004, while we are arguing about the past intent of one already captured despot, the mullahs in Iran are collecting equipment to concentrate the uranium isotope that they need for nuclear weapons. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and its friendly government hangs by a thread over a sea of Islamic extremism. North Korea has nuclear weapons and a history of selling whatever it has to the highest bidder.
Three years after September 11, over 95% of the shipping containers entering our ports are still uninspected. What does this dry statistic mean? It means that a container with a timed nuclear weapon entering our country has a nineteen-to-one chance of reaching its target. If Al-Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear weapon and can buy, steal or commandeer a cargo vessel, there is a nineteen-to-one chance that Washington, D.C., or New York will be vaporized.
We face no greater threat, and there should be no higher priority than that. Next to the risk of nuclear incineration of a major city, the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and even the hunt for bin Laden pale into insignificance. Yet what did President Bush say when reminded of his administrations’s failure to deal with this problem in the presidential debates? He said we don’t have enough money. For the spectacular stupidity of that remark alone, he deserves to be retired from office.
Among the many things that President Bush does not understand is history. Over a millennium and a half ago, a barbarian king named Alaric was gathering troops and followers east of Rome. Roman troops were off somewhere in southern Europe, not guarding the homeland. Alaric knew he could never defeat the might of the Roman Empire. He also knew that the Roman troops would return, but he seized his chance. His forces sacked Rome and then abandoned the ruined city.
Alaric died of disease a short while later, and his people dispersed. But he had achieved immortality of a sort. The blow he struck, sacking the “Eternal City”, had begun extinguishing human history’s then brightest light in government, engineering, equality, and democracy. A millennium of darkness and despotism followed, from which the Western world did not really emerge until the Industrial Age.
This is what is at stake in the so-called “war on terror.” It is nothing less than the future of democracy and possibly the survival of mankind. How would we respond to the nuclear destruction of Washington or New York? Would we strike out and incinerate Iran? North Korea? the part of Pakistan where bin Laden is hiding? We certainly have the power to do so, and American popular opinion might well demand immediate and unthinking revenge. Then would others respond in kind? Would limited or total nuclear war follow? Would a new Dark Age ensue?
The risk of nuclear conflict has never been so great and so real since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The difference is that our adversaries are no longer cautious, conservative, and war-weary leaders like Nikita Khrushchev. Despite his bluster, Khrushchev had seen the devastation of his country in World War II and had learned well. Instead, we are now up against unpredictable fanatics and despots like bin Laden, Kim Jong Il, the mullahs of Iran, and Zarqawi, who profess to delight and glory in war and chaos.
Al Qaeda does not have nuclear weapons now, and there are barriers to its getting them any time soon. But time is not on our side. The Bush Administration has wasted three years already, and the storm clouds are gathering.
Above all others this threat should be our greatest priority. Neither biological nor chemical weapons can vaporize our political leadership and seat of government, or our chief commercial city, in an instant. This threat deserves the same kind of zealous attention, communal sacrifice and focused intelligence that we gave to the Manhattan Project, the invention of synthetic rubber, and preparation for D-Day in World War II.
Every political leader, general, spy, scientist, customs official, airline executive, shipowner, sailor, airport worker and airplane pilot with relevant work or expertise should be focusing on this problem 24 hours a day until it is solved. It is that important. Cost should be no object, because the cost of failure is at best a new Dark Age, at worst the end of humankind. Senator Kerry seems to understand this point; President Bush does not. Bush’s failure of imagination and leadership on this—by far the most important lesson to emerge from the tragedy of September 11—proves him incompetent to be our president.
Rome fell, and the Western world languished in darkness for a millennium, because those in charge did not have their eye on the ball. The Bush team has done little in three years to deal with the real threat to us and to the world. It has resisted every intelligent effort to protect our homeland, from formation of the Department of Homeland Security, through creation of the 9/11 Commission, to real reformation of our intelligence services. It has done virtually nothing to address the threat of nuclear terrorism that we face.
The war in Iraq, to which we have devoted so much blood and treasure, does not address the nuclear threat because Iraq did not have nuclear weapons or the ability to produce them. Nor does it have nuclear material or technology. North Korea and Pakistan (which may not always remain our friend) have the weapons, and Iran seems hell bent on acquiring the ability to make them. Other rogue nations may join the club in the not-too-distant future.
The Bush Administration’s expensive “Star Wars” nuclear-missile shield will be useless—even if it works— against a nuke smuggled by land or by sea or on a passenger or cargo airplane. So will blundering tactics in Iraq, faith in God, and utopian visions of worldwide democracy. If Washington or New York falls to a smuggled nuke, future historians—if there are any—will recount how the Bush Administration took its eye of the ball. No doubt they will liken Bush to Roman leaders in the time of Alaric, with their troops in the wrong place at the wrong time.