With Brian Michael Jenkins from Rand Corp. I like his distinction between “terrorism” and “terror”:
NJ: Why did you decide to delve so deeply into the psychological underpinnings of nuclear terror?
Jenkins: Well, I couldn’t write about the history of nuclear terrorism, because at least as of yet there hasn’t been any. So that would have been a very short book. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has stated that it is the No. 1 threat to the national security of the United States. In fact, according to public opinion polls, two out of five Americans consider it likely that a terrorist will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next five years. That struck me as an astonishing level of apprehension.
NJ: To what do you attribute that fear?
Jenkins: I concluded that there is a difference between nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror. Nuclear terrorism is about the possibility that terrorists will acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon. Nuclear terror, on the other hand, concerns our anticipation of such an attack. It’s about our imagination. And while there is no history of nuclear terrorism, there is a rich history of nuclear terror. It’s deeply embedded in our popular culture and in policy-making circles.
This is also good:
NJ: How do you break this chain reaction of fear?
Jenkins: The first thing we have to do is truly understand the threat. Nuclear terrorism is a frightening possibility but it is not inevitable or imminent, and there is no logical progression from truck bombs to nuclear bombs. Some of the steps necessary to a sustainable strategy we’ve already begun. We do need better intelligence-sharing internationally and enhanced homeland security and civil defense, and we need to secure stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world.
Nations that might consider abetting terrorists in acquiring nuclear weapons should also be made aware that we will hold them fully responsible in the event of an attack. We need to finish the job of eliminating Al Qaeda, not only to prevent another attack but also to send the message to others that if you go down this path, we will hunt you down relentlessly and destroy you.
NJ: What should political leaders tell the American people?
Jenkins: Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis—we’re doomed!—and to dangerous overreaction.
I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.
Posted on November 11, 2008 at 6:26 AM •