The sum of all our imaginings
This column was written January 31, 2003.
"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
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 dont 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 dont know any way to absolutely stop them. There are no guarantees.
But we need to deal with probabilities, not imaginings.
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
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