Terror In Extremis

Terror In Extremis

What worries the worriers most, however, is theft-either from Russia, where there is still much plutonium and highly enriched uranium inadequately secured, or Pakistan, where both varieties of fissile material are produced and whose security has been, and will continue to be, at risk. Jenkins, unfortunately, does not take on this most likely of scenarios. Instead, he devotes one chapter each to discussion of the probably mythical red mercury and supposedly lost Russian suitcase bombs. He largely dismisses both, and he is almost certainly correct to do so.

Virtually every chapter in the book has something of value, usually an argument structured to diminish some part of the case for, or assumption essential to, the nuclear terrorist threat. He is careful not to dismiss the case or the assumption, but he often does a credible job of crippling them. Take the chapter entitled "Is Deterrence Dead?"

Jenkins begins where most discussions of deterrence of terrorism end, with a quote from the former head of the United States Strategic Command: "How do you deter or dissuade someone whose reward is in the ‘after life'?" Jenkins does not take the question to be rhetorical. First, he observes that while martyrdom may appeal to individual terrorists, the terrorist group has a kind of rationality and thus will want to do things it regards as successful-and be around afterward to continue doing them. Thus we should realize that "a society's demonstrable resiliency contributes to deterrence." Spelling this out, Jenkins observes:

Terrorists will never have enough nuclear weapons or sufficient destructive power to destroy an entire country. More likely, their arsenal will be limited to one or two low-yield devices. The losses would still be tragic, but the republics will survive-wounded, angry, determined, and very dangerous.

The reader can see where this is going. Jenkins reminds us of the losses our country has survived, from world wars to the devastating flu of 1918: if we do not see our defeat in the terrorists' act, they cannot see their own victory and may thus be deterred from this high-risk/low-payoff course of action. Further, "terrorists and their supporters must be helped to understand" that our "pursuit of transgressors would be relentless," that there would be "no respite, no forgetting, no quarter" and that Washington would likely "lower the standards of evidence, presume guilt, violate sovereignty, attack preemptively." Then, lest his enthusiasm for a deterrent response scare us as well as the terrorist, he adds, "Ruthless pursuit does not, however, mean indiscriminate violence or other actions inconsistent with core American values."

This sounds like the kind of posture we are in right now following our moves into Afghanistan and Iraq and our pursuit of the al-Qaeda leadership after 9/11. But, after all this, is there any good reason to believe that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are deterred from attempting a nuclear terrorist attack? That is meant to be a rhetorical question.

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in the book is one that plays out, with dialogue, what the debate would be like in the White House if a nuclear weapon were to be detonated in New York City. Senior officials debate pressing questions: Should other cities be evacuated? Should we attack Iran? What are the Russians, Israelis and South Asians likely to do? Jenkins does a good job of capturing the decision makers' need for information that would not be available, the need to do something while avoiding doing the wrong thing, and the inevitable confusion and hysteria that would be injected into a debate that would have to expand to take account of events around the world prompted by the crossing of the nuclear threshold. Jenkins's reaction to his own well-drawn scenario continues to press his central point, that nuclear terrorism is an "if" not a "when," and that while the probability of its occurrence is only a guess, the reality of our fear of its occurrence is with us now, with all its own unfortunate consequences.

In the end, Jenkins concludes that we should, well, grow up:

We can behave like frightened sheep, content to fill our stomachs while we are herded about by terrorists and cynical politicians who would chip away at our liberty. Or we can behave as citizens whose first mission is to defeat the tyranny of terror.

There is nothing wrong with taking a cold, hard look at the new conventional wisdom that nuclear terrorism is the single-greatest threat confronting our country. There is certainly every reason to resist unnecessary infringements on our civil liberties justified by perceptions of the threat. And we can easily embrace the author's practical recommendations to control fissile material, go after terrorists and be prepared for "the day after" if it occurs-all steps advanced by those analysts and cynical politicians Jenkins decries. But where does that leave us? The truth is that the nuclear terrorist threat has the standing it now does because other cold, hard analysts can see motive in terrorists who have struck us before and are still around, because scenarios for a successful attack are judged to be more than "just possible," because there is neither defense nor deterrent available in which we should have confidence, and because a single detonation would likely devastate a city and several detonations could well devastate the country.

Jenkins is right to note that, in spite of all the hype, a nuclear terrorist attack has not yet happened. It is true that there is only a very, very small chance that an American city will be attacked with a nuclear weapon by terrorists this year or next. But what is the likelihood of such an attack over the next ten or fifteen years if Russian fissile material is not better secured, if Pakistan's political situation is not stabilized, if North Korea and Iran are not prevented from accumulating fissile material, if we do not avoid the widespread use of fissile material in our nuclear-power programs and if we do not break the back of the most capable terrorist organizations? It is that kind of question-one that takes account of our long-term vulnerability-that has led many reasonable observers to make the assessment that this threat is the primary one we will face in the years ahead.


Robert L. Gallucci is the dean of Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Essay Types: Book Review