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September 11th, 2008
02:00 PM ET

A nuclear 9/11?


Editor's Note: We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
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Brian Michael Jenkins
Author, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Will terrorists go nuclear? It is a question that worried public officials and frightened citizens have been asking for decades. It is no less of a worry today, as we ponder the seventh anniversary of 9/11.

Might Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions lead eventually to arming Hizbollah or Hamas with nuclear weapons? Might a financially desperate North Korea sell the wherewithal for nuclear weapons to terrorist buyers? Might a political upheaval in always turbulent Pakistan put a nuclear weapon in the hands of extremists? Could there, ultimately, be a nuclear 9/11?

We have to take the long-shot possibility of nuclear terrorism seriously, but we must not allow ourselves to be terrorized by it.

Nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror reside in different domains. Nuclear terrorism is about a serious threat-the possibility that terrorists might somehow obtain and detonate a nuclear weapon-while nuclear terror is about the anticipation of that event. Nuclear terrorism is about terrorists' capabilities, while nuclear terror is about imagination.

Fear is not free. Fear can pave the way for circumventing established procedures for the collection of intelligence, for attempts to operate outside the courts, and perhaps for torture. Distinguished scholars discuss the durability of the U.S. Constitution in the face of nuclear terrorism.

Frightened populations are intolerant. Frightened people worry incessantly about subversion from within. They worry about substandard zeal. Frightened people look for visible displays to confirm unity of belief–lapel pin patriotism.

Fear creates its own orthodoxy. It demands unquestioning obeisance to a determined order of apprehension.

During the Cold War an all-out nuclear exchange would have meant planetary suicide. Today, we face one tyrant in North Korea with a handful of nuclear weapons, an aspirant in Iran enthralled by first-use fantasies, and a terrorist organization with an effective propaganda machine-dangerous, vexing, but not the end of the world, not the end of the nation, not the end of a single city.

Undoubtedly, a terrorist nuclear explosion of any size would have a huge psychological impact on America. But whether it would lead to social anarchy would depend heavily on the attitudes of the nation's citizens and the behavior and communications of its leadership.

We may not be able to prevent an act of nuclear terrorism. But we can avoid destroying our democracy as a consequence of nuclear terrorism.

Whether or not we as citizens yield to nuclear terror is our decision.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of the just-released book Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus, 2008), is Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    I certainly hope the terrorists do not begin to do nuclear attacks. However, the possibility of their own death does not seem to deter them so a nuclear attack is imaginable. I just hope and pray that the imaginable does not become reality.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 11, 2008 at 8:50 pm |
  2. Jed

    As long as weapons exist, the people who want them WILL find a way to get them.
    If we get rid of them all, that doesn't take away the knowledge of how to make them. I would hate to be without our own weapons when the terrorists have acquired theirs.
    The fact that we have them, is what makes other people want them. If you know your neighbor doesn't like you and has guns but you don't, would you want one?
    Nukes ARE dangerous for anyone to have and the real solution is to get rid of them all, then to monitor all of the materials that go into making those weapons. If all nations agree to split and share those resources evenly, and routinely allow each other to inspect each others use of those materials, that would greatly diminish the threat of a nuclear weapon being used, but of even being created in the first place.
    That of course would rely on leaders agreeing that Nuclear Weapons are a bad idea. For a bunch of educated leaders, they can be really stupid sometimes. Maybe they've reasoned themselves into why it's okay, the same way terrorists reason themselves into thinking it's okay to attack innocent people to get attention. Everyone is Self-Righteous, especially the people who say they're not, but when your views put other people in harms way, the majority of human-kind would agree it's a bad decision.

    September 11, 2008 at 5:00 pm |
  3. J.Smith

    A nuclear 9/11 will definitely happen if we don't get our government in check.

    September 11, 2008 at 4:34 pm |
  4. Richard

    No more war with any country, just like Germany and Japan in WWII.
    It makes sense, no more war with any country, but logically then there should have been no war against Nazis or Japanese. You cannot have it both ways.

    September 11, 2008 at 4:11 pm |
  5. brad

    Isn't depleted uranium radioactive? Isn't that considered a nuclear weapon?

    September 11, 2008 at 4:03 pm |
  6. Brian, In

    What seems to be the fact is that, these Islamic extremist, hate Christian religion and will stop at nothing until we are wiped from the face of the earth. Or convert to Islam.

    September 11, 2008 at 4:03 pm |
  7. brad

    The next people to use a nuke will be the United Stated. We will end up nuking Iran for our masters in Israel.

    September 11, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
  8. Mich Texas

    If we don't take the war to them, they will bring it to us. This anniversary should remind us of that. They brought it to the USS Cole, the marine barracks... those were reaction tests.. how far can we push...

    We found out the hard way..

    September 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  9. Steve

    We could be a safe country provided we Americans stop being arrogent and stop bulling other countries with our views and power.

    No one likes to be told what to do within their own country. What was the need for us to invade Iraq. Just because Bush and Cheney had a ultra motive, we stupid Americans gave them a big Gift by agreeing to invade Iraq. Now look at the price we all are paying.

    We must first and for most take care of our own citizens which our government is not doing but has the money to spend on war.

    Wake UP and tell our government NO MORE WAR WITH ANY COUNTRY. ONLY THEN WE CAN BE SAFE.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  10. Melissa, Los Angeles

    I can see terrorists possessing nuclear weapons and possibly setting them off one day just to prove their point. It won't be God or any other deity as many would like to believe ending this world but us humans.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Cindy

    I would not be surprised one bit if one of our enemies such as Iran were to give some terrorists group a nuke to use on us or our interest in other countries. That is what is so bad about our borders not being secure and people being able to easily go in and out. You never can tell what someone may do or try.

    Cindy...Ga.

    September 11, 2008 at 3:02 pm |