Nuclear Taboo?

In today's print Wall Street Journal, Thomas Schelling writes about the so-called nuclear taboo, the strong aversion to the use of nuclear weapons that has built up since Nagasaki. He considers this taboo to be a good thing, and shares it himself, asking: "Can we make it through another half dozen decades [without a nuclear war]?" On the face of it, one must wonder why a nuclear war would be so much worse than, say, a war conducted with machetes as in Rwanda; more on this later.

Schelling makes an odd argument in the last segment of his piece, regarding terrorist groups who might soon possess nukes:
[A nuclear program] will require at least six, probably more, highly qualified scientists and numerous machinists and technologists, working in seclusion… with nothing much to talk about except what the "bomb" might be used for, and by whom. They are likely to feel justified to have some claim in deciding the use of the nuclear device [!!!]…. They will discover, over weeks of arguing that the most effective use of the bomb, from a terrorist perspective, will be for influence…. Threatening to use it against military targets, and keeping it intact if the threat is succcessful, may appeal to [terrorists] more than expending it in a destructive act.
Schelling has a remarkably egalitarian image of terrorist decisionmaking, in which scientists may hold discourse with murderers from a position of influence. Additionally, he wildly misunderstands the mindset of the Islamic terrorist; they want power, not influence. Al-Qa'ida had a great deal of influence in Saudi Arabia, but attempted to overthrow the monarchy anyway. Now, they are being ruthlessly stamped out. Additionally, nothing excites a terrorist more than "destructive acts," as is clearly shown by their penchant for suicide attacks.

We must put Schelling's piece in perspective. The Bush Administration has long been muttering about the use of nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear program, should it be necessary. Schelling, who is horrified by the thought of nuclear weapons used under any circumstances, is trying to turn aside such an approach, by arguing that it's not really so bad if the mullas get nukes anyway. Schelling specifically referred to Iran earlier in the piece, making essentially the same arguments as above.

What is the nuclear taboo based on? What special horror does nuclear weapons possess, that not even terrorists would use them? As I see it, the capabilities of a nuclear bomb are the following:

They kill many people. This, by itself, would not be special grounds for the visceral hatred many people have for nukes; the United States killed far more people in Japan through conventional means than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet they are nearly a footnote in the eyes of the antinuclear brigade. Furthermore, in my lifetime there have been several genocides that have taken place with near-silence from the great powers, while nuclear tests in India and Pakistan harming no one momentarily turned both countries into pariah-states. At any rate, terrorists want nuclear weapons precisely because they kill people, a point which should be obvious.

They kill many people with a disproportionally small effort. Once you have invested the effort to create nukes in the first place, they can be deployed quite easily. This would, theoretically, make their use more attractive. A variant of the same argument is used against the private possession of firearms; for some reason, killing people with a knife is more acceptable, in a sense, than killing them with a gun. Similarly, killing people with tanks and infantrymen is somehow more acceptable than with nukes. Of course, the idea that one can "earn" the right to kill someone simply by expending more effort in the process is absurd. And again, terrorists want nukes precisely because of their ease of use.

They emit radiation. Again, terrorists would desire such an effect, to inflict lasting consequences on their enemies. And for the rest of us, the development of neutron bombs (called by their creator "The most moral weapon ever invented") makes this factor much less important, since such weapons do not produce persistent radiation. (Admittedly, neutron bombs have a limited shelf-life, and are thus more costly to maintain than more typical nukes that do produce radiation.)

In short, there is no reason outside of expediency why a terror group would refrain from using nuclear weapons. Indeed, having expended the vast effort necessary to create the bombs in the first place, terrorists would be under immense pressure to use them quickly and not risk their falling into the hands of an enemy power such as the United States, which would certainly be watching closely for any nuclear programs.

What about established nations? Why do we vest in nuclear weapons all the terrors of our imagination, when the truth is far more banal? With the exception of radiation effects, and the potential for a nuclear detonation to create a massive diplomatic crisis (unless we detonate against another nuclear power, in which case things could get much worse), nuclear wars are no worse than any other kind of war. Indeed, they save the lives of our own soldiers, as does any advance in technology.

I expect some country or other to employ a nuclear weapon within my lifetime. The benefits are just too great, and the drawbacks are meaningless to a country already on the brink of destruction. When considering the issue, we must not let our vision become clouded by wishful thinking of the type employed by Mr. Schelling.

1 comment:

opit said...

And what of the common reaction to such use ? Fear would provide any and all with incentive to mercilessly and swiftly destroy the user if at all possible.