Discussing inevitability

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.

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.

One thing still very wrong in terms of our preparedness is coordination. [I]t's disheartening to see so many different organizations working on so many redundant systems and programs without coordinating with people working on similar things and without building on things that have been done over the past several years. In a lot of cases, the people receiving the funds being doled out start over.

Sissela Bok

Philosopher and author

Some people are acting as if this is the first time ever, for a long time anyway, we have been at this kind of risk. And I think they forget the nuclear balance of terror that children grew up worrying about [during the cold war]. So our country has known that fear in the past....

At the time I wrote ["A Strategy for Peace"] in 1988, no one could predict whether people would avoid nuclear war. Then I [wrote], "Momentum is clearly building the world over for doing so. But the chances of success will depend to no small degree on combating two kinds of inertia – one born of despair, the other of complacency.... It is fully within the capacity of humankind to respond more wisely to the threat of war than by reenacting age-old patterns of entrenched and self-defeating partisanship. We need not accept those patterns passively. We have alternatives to the lowest common denominator as a standard for conduct. There is nothing inevitable about the present levels of distrust and fear, nothing mechanical, nothing irreversible...."

Akbar Ahmed

Professor of Islamic Studies

American University

America's great asset in the war is being neutralized. Before 9/11, the Muslim community in the US was probably the best adjusted and most well-integrated Muslim minority anywhere in the world. Muslims abroad have all sorts of problems – in India, in Russia. But here many called it the "new Andalusia" – where people live and respect each other with no restrictions on faith and culture. Yet today, there is a sea change ... because people feel they are always suspect. Right now, the US needs its Muslim allies strongly behind it. By allies, I mean the people of the Muslim world, not governments. American Muslims have close links to that world and need to be brought into the loop.

America needs to invite the leadership of the Muslim community publicly into the war against terrorism. There should be a Muslim presence in the media. There must be public gestures.... President Bush's visit to an Islamic center six months ago had great impact. It's important to involve the women's side... America needs to send Muslim Americans as unofficial ambassadors to other countries, to talk ... about what America is like and explain that this is not a war against Islam.

Lawrence Harrison


Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

People capable of perpetrating these acts are driven by one of the most powerful human motives, which is humiliation. It's galling for people who've studied the history of Islam and know that many years ago [Islam] was a leader of the world in many dimensions.... [Also,] there are more than 8 million illegal immigrants in the US. That gives you some sense of how unsuccessful we've been in protecting our borders. You combine those two ... and it leaves you uneasy.

It would be easy to say, let's do the Marshall Plan.... But there is a series of values and attitudes in these societies that gets in the way of democracy and progress, prosperity and social justice, that can only be addressed from within the societies. What we can do is make it clear that our actions are not aimed at Islam. We should be doing everything we can to strengthen our coalitions and alliances.

Van Blackwood


Federation of American Scientists' Biological Weapons Verification Project

Inevitable is a bad word. I would say there is a high likelihood that an internal source or a terrorist group will try some sort of chemical or biological attack against the US, US interests, or US allies. That it will kill large numbers of people seems less likely.

[H]ow do you prevent an attack, and if there is an attack, how do you mitigate the effects? You can look at the security of biological agents in the US and in labs around the world. We need a good accounting of where this material is and how much there is. Is there a way to police the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries without compromising trade secrets or intellectual-property concerns? [These industries] recognize that this is a problem.... It is solvable.

We can do a better job of educating the next generation of biologists and bioengineers to be able to recognize the misuse of biotechnology and biological science.

Alvin Toffler

Futurist, author

I don't believe in historical inevitability.... It's possible to derail the directions of change. So nothing is certain. Is it likely? Yes. Is [an attack] likely right away? I'm not certain of that. [But] a lot of our thinking on the issue is relatively naive and overlooks important questions.

Who is our enemy? I do not think we should be fighting a "war against terror" because to call it that immediately traps us into a debate: Your terrorist is my freedom fighter. We should be fighting the war against something larger and probably less debatable: a war against fanaticism.

We're not taking all the possibilities into account. We are focusing on attack from abroad or by a foreign group. Imagine Al Qaeda with another Timothy McVeigh, a domestic fanatic group and a foreign fanatic group, which ... form a marriage of convenience. The second thing we need to do is think about issues of convergence. Imagine some natural disaster had occurred at the same time [as 9/11]. If we're ill-prepared for a single strike, we're hopeless with response to a convergent attack.

As a culture we're trained to think of high-probability changes, even though they may be low impact. But what's frequently far more important is what's improbable but high impact. Nine-eleven was highly improbable, but massive in impact.

Martin Marty

Professor emeritus

University of Chicago Divinity School

The timing and tone of the remarks were prompted in part by politics of the moment. But ... rough stuff is ahead. No one sees a scenario in coming years in which such weapons [of mass destruction] would not be more available and less expensive. But one doesn't have to be done in by this. Sept. 11 simply ended the illusion of security....

One of the great gifts from God is hope, realism plus hope. Realism demands strategy: First, make every effort to remove the threat.... Second, do what we can to prevent more people from becoming terrorists. Rather than force 1.3 billion Muslims into one credo, we should acknowledge the internal diversity among Muslim nations, sects, and forces.

Jim Wallis

Editor, Sojourners Magazine

Two things need to be done. One, an internationally coordinated strategy of intelligence and policing to find terrorist cells and prevent them from acting. Two, we need to look at long-term questions, like anger over the Middle East and the festering global poverty that produces the resentment against the US. [T]here's no doubt a just settlement that brings security for Israel and self-determination for Palestinians would protect Americans from terrorism.

Clearly, misery and hopelessness are the recruiting grounds [for terrorism]. When I speak to any audience, I ask how many think the terrorist threat would be over if the US was able to incarcerate or kill every Al Qaeda terrorist by the end of this talk? Nobody raises their hand.

In England last month, I talked with top British leaders. [Prime Minister] Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, propose a Marshall Plan for developing nations as one [necessity] to fight terrorism. Political and church leaders and the public are talking about this plan and the UN 2015 Millennium goals to reduce poverty. In the US, the average person knows nothing about these, and I've had staffers in Congress look ... blank. Instead ... we are talking about widening the war to Iraq and using nuclear weapons.

Houston Hawkins

leader of the Nonproliferation and International Security Division at the Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory

You have to look at it in terms of probabilities, and what we try to do ... is whittle away at those probabilities to make them less likely.... You could say [during the cold war] it was inevitable we would get involved in a nuclear exchange. But we didn't. Why? We worked on probabilities, and we ultimately reduced the factors that caused us to be hostile to one another.

First, we try to do is keep [nuclear] materials out of the hands of the terrorists. A lot of our activities with the Russians and others are designed to make sure that [weapons-grade] materials inventories are kept under a positive system of accountability. We've also developed sensors to detect nuclear materials in luggage or freight. You identify sanctuaries ... and deny terrorists that sanctuary – like Afghanistan.... You try to understand how terrorists fund themselves ... and interdict that money. Then you train first-responders on what an improvised nuclear weapon might look like.... You start racking these together and, hopefully, with each step you reduce the probability of occurrence to near-zero. It's a never-ending struggle.

William Drummond

Professor of Journalism

University of California, Berkeley

Journalists are lousy when it comes to numbers.... We've reported all this stuff, but there is no kind of probability component. Nobody even asked [about that].... [I]f the military does anything well, they are very good at gauging probabilities. Well ... do they actually have a high level of confidence [that something could happen] in the next six months?

There are two things [the media should be doing]: When you report a public-opinion poll, it is standard procedure that you put in the size of the sample, the exact wording of the question, so that the public has a standard for knowing how much confidence they should have in this poll. [W]hen they report [an official statement] about pending terrorist attack, it should be the same.... Second, if the government is saying this, what are they actually doing?

Martha Minow

Professor of law

Harvard Law School

We need to be much more coordinated and disciplined in our responses, which have to include defensive responses, coordinating our intelligence agencies so that they actually work together, but also promoting democracy and accountability in the world. We may not be able to stop those with their finger on the bomb, but we can reach ... people who might be mobilized by them. It is very important for the US not to be acting alone.

Someone said the 20th century produced weapons of mass destruction, but it also produced tools of mass communication. The challenge for the 21st century is to be wise enough to use [these tools] to prevent the use of mass-destruction weapons. We should pay for satellites to permit free exchange of information ... and offer Internet access in places that don't have it. We need to communicate a vision of a world that holds opportunities for everyone....

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