"I had no idea we had so many (nuclear) weapons. What do we need them for?"
—George W. Bush, aka leader of the free world, May 2001
Yes, that’s our president, on the ball as always. But you have to admit he does seem to think that nuclear war would be a bad thing. Try tuning in the game of the week without cable in the middle of one, for example.
OK, OK, that may be a trifle unfair. And true enough, his proposed "National Missile Defense" program sounds appealing to Americans like me who grew up on science-fiction horror stories of nuclear wars triggered by an accidental launch, as in Dr. Strangelove.
Bush’s idea is simple. We construct, for several millions or billions of dollars, a system of antimissile defenses that could shoot down an "accidental" or "rogue state" strike. So, if Saddam ever gets one bomb, ties it to a modified SCUD missile and in a fit of passion lobs it at Washington, why, we’d shoot it out of the sky harmlessly before sending the B-52s off to reduce Iraq to melted glass.
That sounds a lot more reasonable than Ronald Reagan’s original "Strategic Defense Initiative" plan, more often known as Star Wars. Ronnie wanted us to build a foolproof missile defense shield capable of shooting down every last nuclear missile launched at the good guys, meaning us, of course.
Trouble was, most people bright enough to be toilet trained, or who had been in the military, knew from the start it would never work.
But … doesn’t the Shrub’s limited missile shield program make a lot of sense? For an answer, I went to see Al Saperstein. He is the real deal; a nuclear physicist who has been studying the subject ever since the United States nuked two Japanese cities when he was a teenager.
Saperstein has worked in top U.S. nuclear research facilities, is the editor of a prestigious physics journal and is currently spending a sabbatical year in the Washington office of the highly regarded Union of Concerned Scientists.
Basically, he thinks what Bush proposes to do is a poor idea. And while many other scientists doubt the Bush plan would work, Saperstein thinks it theoretically might, at least "the way you put it, against one missile, accidentally launched, yes. That could be made to work. That is, if cost is no object."
Trouble is, that scenario isn’t likely at all. First of all, we haven’t had even one Fail-Safe-style accident in more than half a century of the nuclear age.
And why on earth would even the most outlaw nation lob a puny nuclear weapon or two at our possessions? Even if they got through, the aggressors know they would soon be radioactive dust.
No, the real threat is terrorists. The Russians have or had, many hundreds or thousands of small, portable, so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons.
Supposedly they are all under lock and key, and supposedly, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island couldn’t have happened, either. There are lots of Russians in desperate need of scratch, and lots of terrorist bands with money.
And if they got a nuke, they wouldn’t need a rocket.
"You could put a weapon with the power of the Hiroshima bomb in a backpack. Or put one on a ship and detonate it in a port," Saperstein said soberly. The Shrub’s National Missile Defense would be defenseless against that.
Frankly, I always thought that whatever nonsense our selected president believes, the whole idea was really designed for his military contractor buddies.
Al Fishman, who has been fighting for peace and justice about as long as Saperstein’s been counting atoms, has a different spin, one supported by a piece in last week’s conservative Economist newsmagazine. "What is really behind all this is the military and commercial domination of space," Fishman said.
Want proof? The Pentagon held a space-war exercise in January in Colorado. They are clearly planning for a future with offensive weapons in space. That’s why we were among only three countries that voted against a United Nations resolution to "prevent an arms race in outer space."
More likely than not, National Missile Defense is merely a cover for research into what our would-be nuclear space cowboys really want to do.
Incidentally, what we tend to forget is that building the Bush boondoggle would be a clear violation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty we signed in 1972.
That treaty helped hold down the arms race all these years, and, in this insane world, preserved MAD — the only thing that has prevented nuclear war.
MAD stands for Mutual Assured Destruction, and has been our policy since the Cuban missile crisis. Simply put, it means that if anybody fires one nuclear missile at us, we fire all of ours back — and vice-versa.
That would literally mean the end of the world. Nobody can risk that, and so nobody has been tempted to fire even one, ever.
Now George Bush wants to mess with this. Stopping this nonsense would be a good idea, and we’ve got a homey who can do something about it: Our own Carl Levin, now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
So bug him. Incidentally, if you want to learn more, Al Saperstein is going to be the featured speaker Aug. 9 at the annual event marking the legacy of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, which will start at 6 p.m. at the Swords into Plowshares Gallery on Woodward, just north of Comerica Park.
Recuperating: Millie Jeffrey, the longtime UAW official, member emerita of the Wayne State Board, and activist for all things holy, got into a fight with her Ford Escort last week. Millie won, but has a broken wrist and two broken ankles, now mending at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org