The bomb in your head.

The bomb in your head.

The bomb in your head.

Politics and policy.
June 10 2002 6:26 PM

The Bomb in Your Head

The "dirty bomb" is just the detonator. You're the fallout.

John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft 

This morning, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the detention of an alleged al-Qaida agent in the United States on suspicion of plotting to detonate a radiological ("dirty") bomb in Washington, D.C. If you're freaking out over this or refusing to take it seriously, you aren't alone. Both reactions are natural in the face of a scenario that seems too awful to contemplate. But both reactions have to be overcome. You have to get used to the idea that a radiation-bearing bomb will go off in this country sometime soon and that despite it, life will go on. Otherwise, you risk becoming part of the fallout.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's the message of today's briefing by Phil Anderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The CSIS briefing takes place in a setting that oozes think-tank geekdom: blue blazers, yellow ties, framed photos of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and display shelves full of pointy-headed geopolitical tracts. Anderson rattles off numbing details of a simulation conducted in March of a radiological bomb explosion outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington: low-grade isotopes, alpha emitters, curies of Cesium 137, 8-knot winds.

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The stuff you can understand is even more boggling. Anderson assumes that 10,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, would be at the museum that day. He projects that radiation would spread over 25 percent of the city. How many people would die? Hundreds, he supposes; maybe thousands. How likely is such an attack? "The plans are already on the shelf," he says. Al-Qaida probably has enough Cesium 137 in hand, he says. Parking it next to the museum is as simple as procuring an old school bus.

Is he freaking out about this? Nope. For the most part, he says, "We're not talking about fatal doses of radiation." Sure, hundreds or thousands might die, but that's "not significant in terms of loss of life." Not significant? He repeats the phrase so many times that I ask him afterward how many people have to die before he'll call it "significant" or a "weapon of mass destruction." He says he reserves that term for nukes, which kill many times more people. Radiological bombs are "conventional," he insists. We're just blinded by our "fear of radiation."

This language—conventional, not significant, fear of radiation—seems devoid of feeling. And gradually, you realize, that's the point. The dirty bomb is bad, but the radiation it spreads is limited and can be cleaned up. Unlike a nuke, it doesn't have a physical chain reaction to magnify its destruction. It requires a human chain reaction. It requires ignorance, fear, and panic.

That was the point of the simulation: to find out not how the bomb would behave, but how we would behave. The answer was: not well. People inside the contaminated area would rush to their cars and to the subway to reach their families, carrying radiation to the suburbs. Parents outside the area would rush toward the museum to save their children, contaminating themselves. Neighboring jurisdictions would be afraid to send workers and material to help decontaminate the site. After the cleanup, unwilling to believe that the crisis had passed, people would refuse to travel or buy goods or send their kids to school. Many would move far from the city and refuse to come near it again. The bomb would wound the city; the public reaction would kill it.

There's a strange air of unreality about the whole presentation. It's just a simulation. It didn't really happen. Anderson concludes that such an attack is "a real possibility" but that the expected long-term rise in cancer rates afterward is only a "potential" result and that the bomb would "have a far greater psychological impact than real impact." It's a frustrating summation. You'd like to separate the real from the potential, the physical from the psychological. You'd like to know what the bomb will do to you and your city. You'd like to know how bad it will be. The answer is: as bad as you make it.