War suddenly seems very close, closer that it has seemed for
years. All over the Internet, as in the mainstream media,
people find themselves compelled to speak about the upcoming
war and all its ramifications, regardless of their stations
in life or their formal qualifications.
It’s not an issue anyone can simply ignore in pursuing
day-to-day work, and I find I cannot ignore it here, even
though this space is supposed to be devoted to technology.
Anyway, the issue is technology. The question on
the table concerns the most important technology ever
invented: weapons of mass destruction. How are thoughtful
people to prevent their development and use?
The barrage of daily news is so blinding that we must step
far, far back in order to get a clear perspective. We can
at least take a look at the most
familiar and public part of the history of WMD: the history of nuclear weapons,
which uncannily resembles the old Tom Lehrer song “Who’s
Next?” For a long time the world was used to five nuclear
countries; then it was revealed that Israel had been quietly
building up a huge arsenal, after which Pakistan and India
tested bombs, and now there are grave worries concerning
Iraq and North Korea. South Africa dismantled its nuclear
The historical perspective is valuable because it shows that
a focus on Iraq, or even George W. Bush’s favorite “axis of
evil” states, oversimplifies and trivializes the problem.
Nuclear proliferation (a decade after many of us thought the
danger was winding down) has become a worldwide crisis.
Chemical and biological weapons have followed similar
trajectories, though with more perturbations.
In the grand scheme of things, taking out Iraq rates a very
low priority–hardly worth even considering. And this would
be true even if the task were relatively cost-free.
Even if we weren’t looking at thousands of combat deaths, at
potentially millions of civilians killed through destruction
of social infrastructure, at the risk of increasing
terrorism and cutting down the few possibilities for civil
discussion, at the hundreds of billions of dollars
intervention could cost and the effects on the world economy
for years to come, or at the deleterious psychological
impact of formalizing and perpetuating a U.S. policy of
pre-emptive, unilateral aggression.
So what can be done realistically and reasonably to counter
the spread of WMD?
Some prophylactic measures are straightforward and
Build a political environment opposed to the technologies
themselves, through support for nonproliferation treaties
and increased measures to break down radioactive materials.
Try to rein in the dissemination of mechanisms for
delivering WMD, to reduce the devastation that would be
caused by a successful attack.
Speed up efforts to fortify vulnerable targets and conduits,
such as ports.
But clearly those are small and perhaps even cosmetic
remedies. We’ve got to rethink the whole way we’re
approaching this problem.
We have to halt weapons programs. Of course, it’s hard to
draw a line between peaceful research and weapons research
(innocent medical work on genes in smallpox, for instance,
has turned up insights that may be useful to people who want
more virulent weapons) but we have to recognize that our
research is ultimately developing weapons for our enemies.
Efforts at nonproliferation are never perfect. And so the
doctrine that we must be able to strike targets anywhere, at
any time of our choosing, with ever more sophisticated
weapons, is not only chauvinist and arrogant but
Indeed, not a single weapon in the hands of disenfranchised
groups has originated with such groups–the technologies
were always created first by dominant nations.
And we must go further. We cannot reason with those who are
willing to bring down civilization, but we can isolate them.
We have to bring poor nations into the prosperity sphere
(such as it is).
France and Germany have lived through a couple hundred years
of conflict and still often mistrust each other, but they
work together because their peoples and leaders feel they
are benefiting from a shared economic system. This system
lacks a robust basis, however: it involves only a handful of
countries in Europe and North America, and perpetuates
itself by widening the gap between these First World nations
and most of the rest of the globe.
And even the shared understanding among rich capitalist
nations is fraying. If we do not solve the resource problems
of our world, we could eventually find ourselves in a
permanent global war along the lines of George Orwell’s
Of course, a vision of global cooperation is hard to imagine
coming to reality. But in some initiatives of recent
years–the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the willingness
of major nations to finally face the problem of AIDS, the
beginnings of discussion between the World Trade
Organization and its critics–we see that we are not yet
beset by total paralysis of the intellect or the will.
Furthermore, despite the Bush Administration’s deliberate
sowing of panic, we have a little time. Although there is
evidence that terrorists have access to some radioactive
materials and germs, they are apparently not prepared to
deploy them on a wide scale; the materials and accompanying
delivery mechanisms are still crude.
Unfortunately, when it comes to WMD and terrorism, the
tendency at high levels is still a stampede to the
fortress. There is a tremendous vacuum of leadership–not
just in the U.S., but in other countries and the U.N.
I have to scoff when I hear people seek some correlation
between Bush and the idea of leadership. Just as I scoff
when I hear U.S. military spokespeople lay out their
strategy for war (drop a lot of bombs fast and hope for
surrender) and their predictions of the outcome (a golden
age of liberty, moderation, and prosperity throughout the
And this is why I address the WMD issue. None of the various
other justifications for war possess enough coherence even
to argue against.
Many months ago I first saw reports of a training camp with
ties to Al Qaeda located in Iraq. But this base of the Ansar
al Islam group never made it to the front pages, and did not
offer a forceful impact even when Colin Powell referred to
it in his recent U.N. presentation. The reason is that it is
located in one of the Kurdish areas of Iraq outside of
Hussein’s control. Were Bush to follow his anti-terrorism
policy consistently, he would combine forces with Hussein to
defeat Hussein’s enemies.
But as big as the question of war in Iraq now looms–too big
for jests–we have to take a view that is even bigger, and
show ourselves to be bigger. We have to accept WMD as a
global problem and as a symptom of the sickness of the
modern nation-state. We must at least begin to think this
way, if we are ever to hope of finding a solution.
So what can be done realistically and reasonably to counter the spread of WMD?