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The Bomb Is Back

Just when we thought it was passe, the nuclear threat looms large


Today it all seems so naive, so idealistic, a towering grand illusion. For one brief, shining decade--a dozen years, tops--we'd convinced ourselves that the thermonuclear shadow had receded, the doomsday clock had been set to "snooze," the threat of planetary suicide had vanished along with the Soviet Empire, apartheid and other cruel relics of the 20th century.

Even the experts among us, Foggy Bottom wonks and think-tank philosophers, had dared to dream of a world free of the damoclean sword of mutual assured destruction. "The simple truth is that people simply forgot about nuclear danger for about a decade, and there were some pretty good reasons for doing so. I had a feeling like that myself," says Jonathan Schell, whose hair-raising tome, "The Fate of the Earth" (Knopf, 1982 ), helped fuel the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s.

But in the bleak months since Sept. 11, the phantom menace of nuclear catastrophe has come back with a vengeance--stalking our imaginations, confounding our leaders, confronting us with a host of atomic terrors hitherto barely imagined: hijacked airliners rammed down the throats of nuclear power plants; "dirty bombs" spraying lethal radiation and rendering huge swaths of cities uninhabitable for years to come.

Looming over these lesser catastrophes is the threat of an actual nuclear weapons attack. After the lull of the '90s, we're learning to start worrying and fear The Bomb all over again.

Only now America must face the possibility of dealing with more than just one or two mega-adversaries capable of sending our entire country up in a mushroom cloud. Now we're conjuring up visions of a suitcase bomb detonated at Times Square, a 10-kiloton dose of megadeath delivered in a truck to downtown Los Angeles or Chicago. Or a regional conflict, like the present one pitting India against nuclear rival Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir territory, escalating into global Armageddon.

On the one hand, we're being confronted anew with the sublime terror of extinction; on the other, with the banality and ridiculousness of a threat to our lives and our civilization from something that may be lurking in a briefcase, a pair of Hush Puppies or, as in the new Hollywood blockbuster "The Sum of All Fears," a cigarette-vending machine.

That cognitive tension, some experts say, is nothing new.

"There's something so extreme about [nuclear] weapons and their capacity to destroy much of the world's population that has a dimension of absurdity," says Robert Jay Lifton, a New York professor of psychiatry and psychology and co-author of "Hiroshima in America--A Half Century of Denial" (Avon, 1995).

"In my view, the only relatively accurate kind of perception of nuclear weapons is to see them in their apocalyptic dimension, in their world-destroying dimension," Lifton continues. "So one has to be either apocalyptic or absurd. One has to draw upon the apocalyptic dimension of what they do, and one also has to draw on the absurdity of us destroying our species by our own technology and our own hand."

To be sure, Lifton says, America isn't the only nation to have undergone a kind of "psychic numbing" in response to the horrors of nuclear war. And since the twin towers fell, he believes, "we have become more aware of nuclear danger." But while the White House is painting a bleak picture of potential nuclear terrorism, much of the American public seems to be treating these threats with a mixture of fatalism, disbelief and gallows humor.

In other words, it's business as usual for a country that has never really sorted out its conflicted feelings about being the first nation to unleash nuclear weapons on the world. "In a sense you could say that America's been in denial for pretty much five decades over this type of threat occurring," says Mick Broderick, author of "Nuclear Movies" (McFarland & Co., 1991) and a professor of media analysis at Murdoch University in Australia.

If many aspects of our current anxiety look familiar, there's at least one new wrinkle: The Bush administration's assertion that a future nuclear terrorist attack is not merely possible but virtually guaranteed. In recent weeks, senior White House officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have grimly asserted that an attack on the U.S. with nukes or other weapons of mass destruction is "inevitable," not a matter of if but of when. Last week's news that a U.S. citizen and suspected Al Qaeda member, Abdullah al Mujahir (ne Jose Padilla), had been apprehended while allegedly plotting a radioactive-bomb attack, underscored the sense of looming danger.

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