The Book Club

Prudence, Dear

Dear Peter,

You will clearly be the toughest kind of opponent–a calm skeptic who pokes fun at the wild-eyed hysterics and finds plenty of easy targets. To make this interesting, I’ll push my own reasonableness to its limits and strive to be as controversial as possible. The gist of my position is that we have to beware of both the “threat industry,” as you put it, and the bad guys potentially lurking around the corner.

To slip into your shoes for a moment, let me say that I think the terrorist threat from “rogue” states has been dramatically overblown. Countries like Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea certainly do threaten U.S. interests–especially Iraq–but some of the aggressive policies suggested to deal with the these threats are costly and ineffective. Two obvious examples are secondary sanctions and ballistic missile defense.

In recent years Congress has used economic diplomacy to bully American allies into taking a tougher line against Iran, Libya, and Cuba. “You can trade and invest with us or the rogues,” we tell our friends, “but not both.” The laws are popular with constituents but end up hurting transatlantic relations more than they do the supposed targets. When push comes to shove, we back down to avert a trade war, and the whole charade yields nothing but anger, humiliation, and wasted time.

Another congressional favorite is ballistic missile defense, supposedly to protect us from incoming rogue-state WMD attacks. So far the United States has spent more than $55 billion on these schemes and they still don’t work very well. More important, even if they did work they would address only a small part of a larger problem. As Stern and particularly Falkenrath et al. point out, if a rogue state wanted to attack us with weapons of mass destruction, the last way they’d do it would be with missiles, because such an attack might not work and because even if it did everyone would know where the attack came from and retaliation would be swift and severe. Rushing to build ballistic missile defenses at this point is thus an expensive and probably ineffective way to deal with one unlikely worst-case scenario. (Quip from my lefty wife reading over my shoulder as I type: “So naturally it will be at the heart of the Republican platform next election!”)

And yet, and yet. Whenever I feel tempted to agree with you that the alarms are simply feeding calls by the “beached threat-experts of the Cold War,” whenever I question the “rush to find a seamless conspiracy of terrorists suddenly wanting to use weapons of mass destruction,” I come back to Aum Shinrikyo.

As most of our readers will probably remember, Aum Shinrikyo was a cult led by a charismatic Japanese nutcase named Shoko Asahara. He started out as a purveyor of quack herbal tonics and New Age spirituality and ended as the head of a huge organization of followers seeking to fulfill his prophecies of impending Armageddon. (Imagine Deepak Chopra turned into Dr. No.) Most of the books tell the story at some length, and properly so: It makes riveting, unforgettable reading. The group is best known for its botched nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed a dozen people and injured 5,000 more, but I found even the smallest details about it fascinating. For example, its members composed ditties such as the following:

It came from Nazi Germany, a little dangerous chemical weapon,Sarin, sarin!If you inhale the mysterious vapor, you will fall with bloody vomit from your mouth,Sarin, sarin, sarin, the chemical weapon!Song of Sarin the Brave …

Ok, so maybe it’s catchier in Japanese, but could you make up something scarier if you tried?

As I mentioned in my first post, the worry is that there might be more Aum Shinrikyos out there who will pop up into public view only when it’s too late. Who knew of the Heaven’s Gate wackos, for example, before they killed themselves to follow the Hale-Bopp Comet? What these books demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt is that those guys could have taken a lot of others with them if they had wanted to–and that there are precautions our government can and should take now as insurance against that possibility.

You cite Heymann as a model of sense and sobriety, and I agree. So let me close this missive by pointing out what he says on pp. 154-5: “NBC [nuclear, biological, or chemical] weapons in the hands of sub-state groups may pose the greatest danger to the national security of the United States in the decades following the collapse of Soviet power … the threat of NBC terrorism should be near the top of any list of new priorities.” And what does he recommend as “an excellent comprehensive study” of the subject? The Falkenrath et al. volume you see as threat-mongering. …