Fire Away

Fire Away

Fire Away

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 28 2000 3:00 AM

Fire Away

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Would anyone like to apply for a job as William Safire's fact-checker? All you have to do is verify a single sentence from his New York Times column this morning. The column is about building a missile-defense system, which Safire favors. After conceding that the technology is unproven, he writes, "But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon."

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Before you embark on this assignment, be advised of some problems you will face:

1) Finding people who "insist it will never work" is going to be hard. The skeptics of missile-defense technology that I know of are more nuanced than that. They just question whether the technology will work soon enough to warrant proceeding with deployment now, as advocated by Safire and some members of Congress.

2) The last time anyone had the option of doubting that we could put a man on the moon was the 1960s. Many of the people who now have doubts about missile defense were at that point either a) a gleam in their father's eye or b) mere kids. What kinds of things did kids do in the 1960s? Oh, watch Star Trek.

3) Even for grown-ups, doubting that we'd put a man on the moon wasn't a big left-wing cause in the 1960s. Remember, it was a beloved Democrat, John Kennedy, who had inaugurated NASA's moon shot. And for those who opposed the program, the common complaint was not the impossibility of the goal but its frivolity and cost. You know: diverting money from the war on poverty, etc.

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In recognition of these difficulties, I'll lighten up the assignment. Though Safire claims to know of "many" people who meet his criteria, I'll settle for one. All you have to do is find a single person, anywhere on the planet, who a) is on record as believing that missile defense "will never work"; and b) is on record as having doubted that "technology could ever [emphasis added] put a man on the moon."

Mail your entry to William Safire, c/o New York Times, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY, 10036. The winner will be flown by space shuttle to New York, where he or she will be treated to a get-acquainted lunch with Safire. During the lunch, Safire will share such tips as, "Remember, the key to writing a column on deadline isn't getting things right. It's phrasing them in a way that makes them impossible to prove wrong."

Alternatively, you can e-mail your entry to me. If you can show that Safire's claim is even close to true, I will apologize in this space for my snide skepticism. Employees of Slate are not eligible for this contest, but William Safire is.

Speaking of wrong: In his column, Safire stresses that he's not trying to resurrect the discredited Star Wars missile defense, which was conceived in an era when the nightmare scenario was massive Soviet attack. A small missile-defense system will do, since "today the growing threat comes from rogue states and terrorists." What follows is something that I (among others) have said before, but I'm going to keep repeating it until people like Safire come up with a reply.

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1) As for terrorists: Suppose you're a terrorist and you want to nuke an American city. You've got the resources to build a bomb, and the question is how to deliver it: a) covertly build or acquire an expensive, complicated, and inherently unreliable missile that would in theory let you deliver your payload precisely; b) sneak the bomb across the border (by, say, concealing it in a van full of illegal immigrants), park it in a midtown garage, set the timer, then catch a cab to La Guardia. Duh.

2) As for "rogue states": Suppose you're a rogue dictator. Suppose that you want to nuke an American city and would just as soon avoid the discomfort of utter retaliatory annihilation. You are trying to decide between two options: a) put a return address on your nuke—i.e., deliver it via a missile launched from your soil; b) use the van method outlined above. Duh.

Of course, you could always posit that the leader of the rogue state wouldn't mind being annihilated. But that would mean he was literally crazy, pathologically self-destructive. And, from Qaddafi to Saddam Hussein, leaders of rogue states have proved time and again that they're not crazy. They're survivors.

Safire outlines a scenario in which "Saddam Hussein could build a nuclear bomb, buy a missile from North Korea and invade his neighbors on the presumption he could act with impunity—because he could credibly threaten to kill millions of Americans if we dared to intervene." Questions:

1) Would Saddam's threat really have any credibility, given that he would assuredly die if he launched that missile? (See above.)

2) If, as Safire proposes, we hypothetically grant Saddam's threat credibility, the question becomes: How much would our perception of the threat be reduced by a missile-defense system that had never been tested under real-world conditions? (Remember how porous the Patriot anti-missile system turned out to be when its performance during the Gulf War was carefully assessed?) Let's say we're wildly optimistic and conclude that there's a 90 percent chance that a missile-defense system would take out Saddam's missile(s). In other words: There's only a 10 percent chance that millions of Americans will die—or even 5 percent, since Saddam's technology may malfunction. Can you imagine the American citizenry incurring that kind of risk to save a small, far-off nation? Apparently Safire can. Then again, he's got a good imagination.