Taming the Hydra

Taming the Hydra

WMD: Threat and Strategies

If a small (ten-kiloton) nuclear bomb exploded in Times Square, it would “destroy instantaneously the theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within a third of a mile. . . . The ensuing firestorm would engulf Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden. . . . On a normal workday, more than half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A noon detonation in midtown Manhattan would kill them all. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout in the ensuing hours,” says Graham Allison in his book Nuclear Terrorism.

Even a “dirty bomb”—a nuclear weapon that did not generate a huge explosion but that spread radioactive particles over a wide area—would result in many deaths, widespread panic, and major disruption. The technology is now sixty years old and is no longer the monopoly of societies with sophisticated scientific establishments. The major obstacle is not technical know-how but access to fissile material. With nuclear stockpiles poorly guarded, a range of mid-size states and terrorist organizations could acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, a vast network for smuggling both materials and expertise facilitates proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The United States has watched impotently as one of the world’s greatest proliferators, Abdul Qadeer Khan, received little more than a slap on the wrist by our “ally” in the global war on terror, Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan.

Even more frightening is the prospect of an attack with chemical or biological weapons. Biological agents can be delivered in a variety of ways, one of which is through an aerosol-type spray. Biological attacks are hard to detect until large numbers of people have developed symptoms; major attacks against civilian populations would stretch public health systems beyond the breaking point. A 1993 report by the Office of Technology Assessment estimated that if a small airplane sprayed about two hundred pounds of anthrax spores upwind of Washington, D.C., the number of fatalities in the worst-case scenario would be between one and three million.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—is a real and hydra-headed danger. There is a straightforward solution to the nuclear threat: strict control over all fissionable materials. Without the raw materials for a nuclear weapon, there is no threat. Graham Allison has argued that effective control is a real possibility; whether or not it happens will depend on the sagacity of decision makers. But the effects of a major biological attack are poorly understood, and such countermeasures as have been devised may well be inadequate. Because biological weapons have not been used, there is little public understanding of the threat, and consequently there is ...