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Discussing inevitability

May 30, 2002

Alvin Toffler doesn't believe anything is inevitable. Likely, perhaps. But a man who has spent a lifetime thinking about what lies ahead – and penning such works as "Future Shock" and "Powershift" – is cautious about pronouncements. A quick look at history suggests it's quite possible to "derail the directions of change," he says.

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Last week, Americans were rattled as one government official after another warned that more devastating attacks in the United States – particularly with weapons of mass destruction – were a matter of when, not if. And many experts agreed that increasingly sophisticated terrorists present profound threats – especially given their unprecedented focus on causing mass civilian casualties as well as destruction.

But at the same time, many observers give voice to another discussion: what's already being done and what needs greater attention to better protect against such attacks.

The Monitor asked a number of nuclear scientists, religious scholars, and media and legal experts for their responses to the drumbeat of alerts. Some called for more accurate assessments of our vulnerabilities. Others pleaded for more effective coordination among organizations that defend against or respond to attacks.

Some urged the media to better inform the public – not only about the probability of attack, but about how to respond. One expert urged more creative use of one of the great developments of the 20th century: tools of mass communication.

Theodore Postol

Professor of science, technology, and international security

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Stealing a [nuclear] weapon is very difficult even with the disarray in the former Soviet Union. It is much more likely that [theft] would have happened earlier than now because things are much more stabilized in Russia. If a usable weapon were stolen, I think we would have seen the effects. There would be no hesitation on the part of Al Qaeda to use it.

I do not dismiss people who voice this concern [about nuclear weapons], but I think it's not as likely as many people think. I'm not suggesting that it shouldn't be a very high priority. But it's not the thing that I regard as the most likely near-term scenario for large amounts of destruction. I'm more worried about things like nuclear reactors, which are not adequately protected from an assault of the kind that Al Qaeda is very good at.

Instead of rushing around worrying about what might be happening on every street corner and warning us to watch our neighbors, I'd rather see a systematic evaluation of vulnerabilities that would lead to large numbers of people being killed. Some of these are things, like nuclear reactors, where you could image a very well-executed, commando-type attack. We know these guys are capable of that, and it could potentially lead to a very large release of radioactivity. It's a type of operations these guys are well trained to execute, like we saw Sept. 11.

Bruce Clements

Associate director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections

St. Louis University

I believe we are facing an inevitable situation as [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has described it.... The desire for mass casualties is a new phenomenon. If you look historically, what used to happen was that a terrorist group like the IRA wanted high-visibility, low-casualty attacks so they could capture headlines and make their political point. Look at the trends between the 1980s and 1990s. There are fewer attacks, but the ones that are occurring have more and more casualties.... That makes weapons of mass destruction more appealing to terrorist organizations.

We need to invest more heavily in the preparedness of hospitals, public-health departments, first-responder organizations. They need to have the resources to identify that something is happening. Especially with bioterrorism, if it's done covertly it's very difficult early on to identify that something is happening.