The Other Shoe

Today’s Times carries on the Op-Ed page an item by foreign-affairs correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, in which he makes a grim prediction: a 10 to 50 percent likelihood of a nuclear strike against America by our Islamic foes within the next ten years.

We read:

The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America. Everything else — Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska — is commentary. The nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, or downtown Washington, would cause the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands; a catastrophic depression; the reversal of globalization; a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties.

Many proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent. Only technical complications prevent Al Qaeda from executing a nuclear attack today. The hard part is acquiring fissile material; an easier part is the smuggling itself (as the saying goes, one way to bring nuclear weapon components into America would be to hide them inside shipments of cocaine).

We live, seven years after 9/11, in the age of the super-empowered, eschatologically minded terrorist. He is motivated by revolutionary and theological concerns rather than by nationalist grievances, and he is adept at manipulating technology against its Western innovators. In the cold war, the Soviet Union had the technical ability to eliminate America many times over, but was restrained by rational self-interest, by innate conservatism, and, perhaps, by an understanding of the horror of world-ending nuclear war. Though Al Qaeda cannot destroy the world, it will destroy what it can, when it can.

I’m sure that many of us who live here in New York, and watched the towers fall seven years ago, have had this awful prospect in mind ever since. This is a tough town — indeed, quite proudly and defiantly so — and we’ll be damned if we’ll be chased from our magnificent city by vague threats, or cowed by a superstitious and semiliterate gang of medieval tribesman squatting in caves beyond the frontiers of civilization. But this they have achieved: there is hardly a day that I don’t imagine that sudden pink flash.

Goldberg makes the still-unpopular case that this is not a matter of post-facto investigation and prosecution by law-enforcement agencies. He reminds us that what is required is pre-emption: that this threat “must be anticipated by intelligence agencies, and eradicated by the military”.

Read his essay here.

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3 Comments

  1. JK says

    The percentages given, though I did not read the link, are nearer 98%.

    Posted September 9, 2008 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks for cheering me up, JK.

    Posted September 9, 2008 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  3. MikeZ says

    I should have saved the “Yikes!” for this topic. Oh well…

    – M

    Posted September 10, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink