“Terrorism is only as important as you let it be,” wrote syndicated columnist Gwynne Dyer last week. She has a point in arguing that nations should keep this problem in perspective. Yet there is one situation where it is almost impossible for policymakers to overreact: terrorists possessing unconventional weapons.
“Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” states a report to be issued later this week by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, a Congressionally sponsored panel. “America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing.”
The margin is shrinking because there are more and more sources of plutonium, uranium, microbes, and chemicals. Nonetheless, it’s not easy for nonstate actors to obtain these dangerous materials. Once they get them, however, the odds shift dramatically in their favor. On a typical day, people successfully smuggle 21,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. On a typical day, 31,000 trucks, 6,500 rail cars, 1,200 buses, 50,000 cargo containers, and 334,000 cars cross into America. On a typical day, 134,000 pedestrians enter our country legally and another 14,500 people do so illegally. How can we be confident that, in the midst of all this traffic and over the course of decades, we will be able to find every disassembled nuke, softball of uranium, orange of plutonium, canister of germs, and container of chemicals? We may catch shipments now and then, but all it takes is one failure to change the course of history.
If we are going to avoid history of this sort, we will have to pursue, capture, and kill terrorists with greater efficiency and speed than we do at present. Yet far more important, we need to go after dangerous states, the parties supplying lethal materials. We must, for instance, disarm North Korea, stop Iran and Syria, and stabilize Pakistan. And to do that, we have no choice but to summon the political will to end Russian and Chinese proliferation of nuclear technologies.
President Bush, following on the initiatives of his predecessor, has tried to enlist the support of Moscow and Beijing in stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, Dubya has ended up tolerating their grossly destructive behavior while obtaining little in return. If President-elect Obama cannot do significantly better, the odds say we will transition to an unimaginably horrible world.