"Why do you use an ax when you can use a bulldozer?"
-- Osama bin Laden
WASHINGTON -- As Republicans convene less than four miles from Ground Zero, the presidential contest is crystallized by that proximity. The next four years will be the most dangerous in the nation's history because the 9/11 attacks were pinpricks compared to a clear and almost present menace. This year's pre-eminent question, beside which all others pale, is: Which candidate can best cope with the threat of nuclear terror?
A blood-chilling book on that is ``Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe" by Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government, currently an adviser to John Kerry. Allison's indictment of the Iraq War -- as a dangerous distraction from and impediment to the war on nuclear terror he advocates -- is severable from his presentation of stark facts about the simultaneous spread of scientific knowledge and apocalyptic religious worldviews:
A dirty bomb -- conventional explosives dispersing radioactive materials that are widely used in industry and medicine -- exploded in midtown Manhattan could make much of the island uninhabitable for years. As many as one in every 100 Manhattanites might develop cancer. Perhaps even more people would die in the panic than would be killed by radiation. But even dirty bombs are relative pinpricks.
The only serious impediment to creating a nuclear weapon is acquisition of fissionable material -- highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. In 1993, U.S. officials used ordinary bolt cutters to snip off the padlock that was the only security at an abandoned Soviet-era facility containing enough HEU for 20 nuclear weapons. In 2002, enough fissile material for three weapons was recovered from a laboratory in a Belgrade suburb. Often an underpaid guard and a chain-link fence are the only security at the more than 130 nuclear reactors and other facilities using HEU in 40 countries.