Thinking the Unthinkable

There is probably no world without monsters in it. In Beowulf’s world, Grendel and his mother had been seen skulking on distant moors long before they burst into Hrothgar’s hall. Atomic weapons likewise lurk on the outskirts of our minds, the ultimate horror about which we would rather not think.

Today the announcement came that Iran has expanded its nuclear enrichment program and analysts tell us that means they could have a couple of bombs in a year or two. What next?

There are, of course, things that the international community can do and probably will. There can be further sanctions and embargoes. They haven’t made an impression so far, but negotiations have been fruitless and the only other recourse is war – not a realistic possibility when American forces already have enough to do.

But would we turn the monster loose? Are we – is anyone – really likely to release the monster?

Yes, the more bombs there are in the world, the likelier it is that terrorists would manage to get one. But, apart from that, what would Iran do with one? Against whom would they use it? Is there any country with a nuclear weapon that could use it without fear of retaliation? Is there a country so irrational that they would take that risk?

I read a discussion recently of the way in which civilized countries put away in recent centuries modes of punishment which once they took for granted. No one today, not even the terrorists, would hang, draw and quarter an enemy, yet once it was not considered remarkable to do so. Would anyone today really use an atomic bomb?

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about “smart bombs.” No atomic bomb is “smart.” It’s not a tactical weapon. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, an exterminator of men, women, and children. Who, when leaders are unwilling to negotiate, would retaliate against civilian populations? What kind of people are we? Are we as vulnerable to the monsters as Hrothgar?

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