Seven years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans continue to be concerned that far worse is yet to come.
According to a Harris Poll, two out of five Americans think it likely that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within five years. Astonishingly, this is far more than believed a nuclear war was likely even during the the Cold War.
This level of apprehension, although clearly disconnected from everyday behavior, reflects terrorist success in creating an atmosphere of fear that causes the target audience — in this case the American people — to exaggerate the capabilities of terrorists and the threat they pose.
That is exactly how terrorism works.
But that pervasive dread also reflects a relentless message of fear from Washington, amplified by increasingly sensationalist news media, to an always anxious audience. Such terror can serve political agendas, but is a poor platform for sensible policy.
Some assert that nuclear terrorism is inevitable — not a matter of "if" but "when." Others estimate the odds at one in a million. These estimates reflect perceptions — they are not predictions. Terrorists might some day detonate a nuclear bomb, but there is no inexorable progression from conventional truck bombs to atomic bombs.
"Nuclear terrorism" and "nuclear terror" are different phenomena. Nuclear terrorism is about the threat that terrorists will acquire and use nuclear weapons, while nuclear terror is about the anticipation of that event.
Nuclear terrorism is about terrorists' capabilities, while nuclear terror is about our imagination.
The history of nuclear terrorism can be quickly summarized: there hasn't been any — although many would hasten to add "yet." But nuclear terror is real, and is deeply embedded in our popular culture and policymaking circles.
Of course, we have to take the terrible possibility of nuclear terrorism seriously. The successful detonation of even a low-yield nuclear device could result in death and destruction many times greater than that of the Sept. 11 attacks. But America's future should not be framed by fear.
Osama bin Laden wants a nuclear bomb and probably would use it if he had one. Yet there is no evidence that al-Qaida even has the knowledge to build a bomb if it had the materials, still less access to actual nuclear weapons.
However, al-Qaida appears to have figured out that fomenting nuclear terror does not require possession of nuclear weapons at all.
What al Qaeda does have is an effective propaganda machine that excites its followers and generates great fear among its foes.
Without setting out to do so, the news media have become active collaborators in the spread of terror. They portray the threat of nuclear terrorism in ever more lurid detail to grab ratings and readers. They show us diameters of destruction, computer animations, illustrations of cities flattened.
America is uniquely susceptible to nuclear terror. Beneath our characteristic national optimism lie seams of anxiety.
We worry that America will lose its place in the world. We fear that our military might will be challenged by new foes against which we have little defense. We fear that our borders no longer protect our territory or our culture. We fear subversion from within.
In the past, these anxieties were underscored by Cold War apprehensions, but now they reflect post-Sept. 11 nightmares. Some see nuclear terrorism as consistent with the end times forecast in the Bible.
So what's wrong with using fear to bring attention to an important issue, to concentrate people's minds, to ensure that government focuses resources to deal with the ultimate terrorist threat?
Fear is not free. Frightened populations are intolerant. They willingly give up freedom for security, without appreciating that security depends on freedom.
Frightened people look for visible displays to confirm unity of belief — lapel-pin patriotism, a substitute for the real thing. Fear creates its own orthodoxy. It demands unquestioning obeisance to a determined order of apprehension. Nuclear terror also encourages terrorists to "think nuclear," inviting them to exploit our anxieties.
During the Cold War, an all-out nuclear exchange would have meant planetary suicide. Today we face a tyrant in North Korea extorting whatever he can from a handful of nuclear weapons, another in Iran possibly working to get nuclear weapons in search of great-power status, and the media-savvy terrorists of al Qaeda. All this is dangerous, vexing, but not the end of the world, not the end of the nation, not the end of a single city.
We cannot simply tell people not to be afraid. But we can halt self-paralyzing hype. And through public commentary, we can affect terrorists' strategic calculations.
America's leaders can convey the message that terrorist attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities will not succeed, and inevitably will be discovered; that a nuclear attack will not bring the United States to its knees, but will jeopardize the terrorists' own constituencies; and that states that contemplate arming terrorists with nuclear weapons will be held responsible for the actions of their protégés.
Rather than wallow in doomsday scenarios, we can demonstrate our own resolve.
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.
© 2008 United Press International.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on September 12, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.