October 16, 2004

THE THREAT IS TO ISLAM, NOT TO US (via Robert Schwartz):

The making of the terror myth: Since September 11 Britain has been warned of the 'inevitability' of catastrophic terrorist attack. But has the danger been exaggerated? A major new TV documentary claims that the perceived threat is a politically driven fantasy - and al-Qaida a dark illusion. (Andy Beckett, October 15, 2004, The Guardian)

Since the attacks on the United States in September 2001, there have been more than a thousand references in British national newspapers, working out at almost one every single day, to the phrase "dirty bomb". There have been articles about how such a device can use ordinary explosives to spread lethal radiation; about how London would be evacuated in the event of such a detonation; about the Home Secretary David Blunkett's statement on terrorism in November 2002 that specifically raised the possibility of a dirty bomb being planted in Britain; and about the arrests of several groups of people, the latest only last month, for allegedly plotting exactly that.

Starting next Wednesday, BBC2 is to broadcast a three-part documentary series that will add further to what could be called the dirty bomb genre. But, as its title suggests, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear takes a different view of the weapon's potential.

"I don't think it would kill anybody," says Dr Theodore Rockwell, an authority on radiation, in an interview for the series. "You'll have trouble finding a serious report that would claim otherwise." The American department of energy, Rockwell continues, has simulated a dirty bomb explosion, "and they calculated that the most exposed individual would get a fairly high dose [of radiation], not life-threatening." And even this minor threat is open to question. The test assumed that no one fled the explosion for one year.

During the three years in which the "war on terror" has been waged, high-profile challenges to its assumptions have been rare. The sheer number of incidents and warnings connected or attributed to the war has left little room, it seems, for heretical thoughts. In this context, the central theme of The Power of Nightmares is riskily counter-intuitive and provocative. Much of the currently perceived threat from international terrorism, the series argues, "is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media." The series' explanation for this is even bolder: "In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power."

Adam Curtis, who wrote and produced the series, acknowledges the difficulty of saying such things now. "If a bomb goes off, the fear I have is that everyone will say, 'You're completely wrong,' even if the incident doesn't touch my argument. This shows the way we have all become trapped, the way even I have become trapped by a fear that is completely irrational."

The threat from al Qaeda is obviously overblown--they've been largely destroyed or marginalized even further than they were pre-9-11--but would your main worry if they managed to detonate a dirty bomb in a Western city be that your own argument might be misunderstood?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 16, 2004 12:36 PM

AQ poses no threat (kinda reminds one of those pre-Madrid scoffings), but if a mega-attack does occur, it'll all be Blair's and Bush's fault.


Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 16, 2004 1:13 PM

The threat of a "dirty bomb" is fear of the unknown combined with the fear of "nukular power" that the Greens have been cultivating for decades. Once again we see the Left and the enemy coming together to build on each others groundwork.

In any case, the threat from al-Qaeda is like winning the lottery. The odd against are huge, but over time the jackpot builds to the point where the expectation becomes greater than the bet itself, and thus a good bet (though still at long odds).

One in a million odds still means that there are a thousand lucky Chinese (or Indians) out there.

And they've always set their sights on outperforming their previous "dark illusion", which means that anything less than 3000 deaths will be considerd, by them, to be a failure, and in need of a new attempt right away.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 16, 2004 1:16 PM

Not to denigrate the value of human life, but a dirty bomb detonated on Wall Street might put a crimp (to the tune of half a trillion or so) in our economy.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at October 16, 2004 1:30 PM

Sure, fears of a dirty bomb are, in some senses, exaggerated. It wouldn't likely kill thousands of people. But, as Fred says, it could be a huge economic blow, because of the exaggerated fear of radiation, as Raoul points out. One standard truck bomb plus a little radiation (say a bag of old radium watchdials) and a press release announcing it, and you've got a city neighborhood where property values drop by 90% for decades. No amount of experts explaining that it's only a .0001% increase in radiation would help.

This article reminds me of one in Salon circa '98, about how our fears of terrorists were exaggerated because, statistically, you were more likely to die in an accident at home (or whatever). Narrowly true, but a clear failure of the imagination.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 16, 2004 1:42 PM

Apathy is the ally of the terrorists, since their operations are far more likely to go undetected the less the general public and their governments care. The fact that many on the left now see apathy to terrorism as their ally in regaining political power doesn't make them direct allies of those who would want to explode a dirty bomb at Wall and Broad streets, but it does fit them into the old "useful idiot" category (not to mention "frantic" amd "paranoid" idiots -- if the GOP comes out with the lion's share of victories on Nov. 2, I would guess we'll be seeing BBC documentaries by 2008 showing we shouldn't be afraid of terrorism because the World Trade Center never really existed in the first place).

Posted by: John at October 16, 2004 2:12 PM

Why is this kind of bomb the only one under consideration?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 16, 2004 2:58 PM

It's just shorthand for a generic terror attack. To list all the possibilites -- hijacked liquid nitrogen trucks, airplaes into nuke plants, etc., would take up too much space.

My former high school's only 10 blocks from Wall Street -- the terrorists could just as easily go there or some other school and pull of a Chechen-style massacre that would be made easier if people went back into their 9/10 cocoons about the possibility of the terrorists being clever enough to pull something like that off here, or come up with a new attack, as with a dirty bomb.

Posted by: John at October 16, 2004 3:15 PM

"fears of terrorists were exaggerated because, statistically, you were more likely to die in an accident at home"

But an accident doesn't come looking to kill you.

Posted by: ray at October 16, 2004 4:36 PM

The ease with which Al-Qaeda could engage in a terrorist attack cannot be overstated. We are currently dependent upon the business sense of drug dealers who understand that nuking their customers is bad for business. As Abe Rosenthal has said,'If you want to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the US, hide it in a bale of marijuana.'

The more I hear from the British chattering classes, the more obvious it is that Blair is engaged in a rear guard action at best.

Posted by: Bart at October 16, 2004 5:00 PM

Things have changed since Omdurman, when the reach of Muslim fanatics was only a few miles.

It'll be a lot easier for them, now, to take over a country with nukes -- Pakistan comes to mind, but there are other good candidates.

And then what. Well, you don't want to keep nukes around if you don't have a delivery system. What would be the point?

So you place them where they'll do you the most good.

If everybody is convinced there's a bomb in Bayonne, values will clarify instantly, but it'll be too late.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 17, 2004 5:07 PM

They'd control Pakistan for twenty minutes before we and the Indians took care of the problem.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2004 5:37 PM

OJ, 'They' controlled Pakistan for about a decade in the 80s, and 'they' still control the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service.

Posted by: Bart at October 18, 2004 9:01 AM

Zia al-Haq was an Islamic ally, not an extremist.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 9:07 AM