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.
This commentary is also available at http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2008/09/11/a-nuclear-911/.
This commentary originally appeared on CNN.com on September 12, 2008.