The sum of all our imaginings

This column was written January 31, 2003.

by Greg Stone

"Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans this time armed by Saddam. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes." President Bush, State of the Union.


Can I imagine this with the president? You bet. So can Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. Crichton wrote about biological warfare in 1969 in "The Andromeda Strain." And in his latest book, "Prey," he imagines the germs aided by nanotechnology. And in 1991 Clancy published "The Sum of All Fears" in which he imagined an atomic bomb, shipped in a plain brown wrapper aboard a freighter, exploding in Baltimore.

However, in "The Andromeda Strain" US Army biological weapons research goes astray. In "The Sum of All Fears" the source of the atomic bomb is Israel, but the weapon falls into the hands of terrorists. And in "Prey" the villains are scientific pride and a failing biotechnology business.

Facts vs. fiction

All plausible, all imaginative, all fiction.

  • Fact gives us reality. In "Germs" Judith Miller and her co-authors describe a religious cult in Oregon trying to influence county elections by making people too sick to vote. In 1984 they infected more than 750 people with a severe strain of Salmonella by pouring their poison on local restaurant salad bars. 
  • Fact is the "weapons grade" anthrax used to kill five people. After 15 months we still don’t know who did it, but the investigation keeps focusing on an American who worked at an American lab. 
  • Fact is two cold-blooded snipers roaming around Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland and arbitrarily killing people at will. Doing this right under the noses of all the forces of federal, state, and local law enforcement mustered against them.

So Mr. President, I too can imagine all sorts of scary scenarios and no, I don’t know any way to absolutely stop them. There are no guarantees. But we need to deal with probabilities, not imaginings.

Probabilities

So I can imagine North Korea being more helpful to terrorists than Iraq because North Korea has an evil dictator, hates us, and already has nuclear weapons. But I don't think it's probable because like Iraq, North Korea has more to lose than they do to gain by doing this.

I can imagine a deadly biological assault being carried out with the assistance of terrorists in Russia. Russia ignored the 1972 biological weapons treaty and continued developing them right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So who knows what kind of "blue light specials" on small pox and whatever are being held in the unstable former states of the Soviet Union? If we can't keep our own germs and scientists in our own super-secret, secure labs under wraps, how do we expect the more numerous Russian germs and scientists in a dissolved country to stay secure? This seems a more probable source of terrorists aid.

And where do we imagine Osama bin Laden and his evil playmates are while we are fixating on Iraq? The last I heard, we thought most of them had slipped across the border into Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons. If this country can hide Osama bin Laden and friends, how probable is it that these terrorists could get their hands on nuclear weapons there?

The real threat from Hussein

But Saddam Hussein trying to attack us secretly or indirectly? Why? We knew Saddam had biological and chemical weapons when we attacked him in 1992. Yet there he was, suffering sure defeat, and he did not use them. Why? Because he would be blown to smithereens if he did and he knew it. He's cruel, he's vicious, but he's not insane or suicidal - yet.

However, that was then, this is now. Then the objective was to get him out of Kuwait and back into his own playpen and your father made that limited objective clear. Now the objective is to get him. Period. And the more you press that objective, the more probable it is that Hussein will do just what you fear. Back someone into a corner. Give them nothing to lose, and you invite them to "go out with a bang?'

So yes I can imagine the scenario you raise. I can imagine it carried out against us by many enemies of our government, some of them Americans living in America. But does your proposed war make the situation better or worse? Does it make it more, or less probable that the unimaginable will happen?

If we attack Iraq without proof - without the backing of the UN - without a plausible and immediate threat - we will make ourselves the most feared - and therefore, the most hated - nation on earth. We will be the target of choice of every crazy from Bagdad to Waco, Texas.

That is when the sum of all your imaginings will probably become reality.

Dealing with reality

Please Mr. President, stop looking in the closet. Stop looking under your bed. Wake up. Shake off the nightmares. Deal with the reality.

We need a world where the economic playing field is level, where the American dream of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is everyone's reality.

We need international laws and international courts and international police that have the moral and legal authority to stop a Saddam Hussein from trampling the rights of his own people and to treat terrorists as the criminals they are. A world where the sum of all our worst imaginings is very, very improbable.

Start us in that direction, Mr. President, and you will build a nation and a world our children will be proud to inherit.

 

Lase updated February 11, 2003

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