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By Robert McHenry : BIO| 15 Dec 2020
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Readers of a certain age, or with a particular antiquarian bent, may recognize these lines:

Last night I was dreamin'

Dreamed about the H-bomb

That was Bill Haley, and in those post-Korea, pre-Cuban Missile Crisis days he was able to dream up a dream that wasn't entirely a nightmare: In the aftermath of his Apocalypse Then, there were thirteen women and only one man in town, and he was that man.

I haven't literally been dreamin' about nuclear weapons, but I've been thinkin' about them more than a little bit. The press, the blogosphere, the commentariat - in whatever form you take your medicine - are divided on the great question: How likely is a nuclear attack on the United States by a rogue state or a non-state actor, i.e., terrorists? And I have no ready-made answer to my derivative but highly pertinent question: How likely does it have to be?

Right now, so far as we know, nuclear weapons are possessed by a few countries we can more or less trust, such as the UK, France, India, and Israel (China I can't figure; as for the "less," I'm looking mainly at you, Russia!) and maybe two we certainly can't. One of these is Pakistan, whose government is at present relatively stable but historically has not been, and whose military, and especially its intelligence service, is said to be deeply inhospitable to Western values and goals. The other, and the source of the "maybe," is North Korea, which may have tested a nuclear device back in October. For days afterward those who watch over such things puzzled over their seismograph tracings, trying to decide whether they had, indeed, recorded a nuclear "event" or whether li'l Kim had just dropped his teasing comb. The thing to remember here is that even a very small nuclear explosion is still one hell of an explosion. And then there's Iran, where scientists either are or are not building the cascades of centrifuges needed to extract weapons-grade fissionables that they either will or will not use to build bombs.

There's this issue of delivery. Pakistan has no aircraft or missile that could deposit a bomb on the United States. North Korea has one in development that could, if it ever works, reach parts of our western coasts. Iran, if it perfects its bomb, is nonetheless as of now shy of a long-range delivery system. But the worry is not so much about a direct attack from any state, which would lead - well, in a just world ought to lead - to a devastating counterattack. The issue is stealth delivery, by a state or by a terrorist organization helpfully armed by one of those (and here's where Russia is not to be trusted). And for this, experts say, ships are looking like the medium of choice. Pack one of these babies, however crude, into an apparently innocent container ship and aim it for America. No fuss, no muss, no fingerprints.

I live quite near some serious naval installations and not far enough from a major commercial port, and this gives me pause. More than pause. In fact, more pause than does the San Andreas Fault. I find that more and more I'm thinking about attractive but obscure little towns on non-navigable rivers somewhere inland - way inland, as in the middle of the continent. Is this silly, or cowardly? Or is it simple prudence?

Of course, the Department of Homeland Security would evidently have me believe that I'm at risk next to a popcorn factory in Indiana just as much as next to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In fact the whole state of Indiana is apparently Ground Zero Number One. But then they also did a full search on my 85-year-old father-in-law before letting him on a plane back to Phoenix. So I think I'll keep my own counsel on this one.

"Thirteen Women" concludes thus:

I thought I was in Heaven

And all of these angels were mine

But I woke up and I ended the dream

'Cause I had to get to work on time

You got off easy, Bill.

Robert McHenry is former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica.


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