The term “weapons of mass destruction” was first used by the White House in 2002. It is a shorthand way of saying “chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons.” Such verbal shortcuts are common in vernacular English, and are essential for rapid communication. However, they are easily misused. Furthermore, they can confuse not only the public, but the government itself.
Both radiological and nuclear weapons release subatomic particles that can kill many people. But a radiological weapon, or dirty bomb, creates neither a shock wave nor intense heat. It is more like a poison than a bomb.
It is right for us to work toward the destruction of chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. Nuclear weapons, however, pose a much more serious threat to American lives. As we have already seen, the logic of war is dominated by the psychology of the adolescent male mind. (This is not an indictment of men. There are deep evolutionary roots to this psychology. It serves the survival of the human species.) The mentality of the sandlot does not like subtlety; defeating a rival by poisoning him does not establish dominance as thoroughly as does a public beating. Hence, aggressor nations and terrorists alike have a preference for explosives.
An explosion is more easily targeted and more easily controlled than an indiscriminate poison. It also sends a strong message of dominance. The bigger the explosion, the stronger the message, the more firmly the dominance of the aggressor over the victim is demonstrated. Hence, in the world of explosions, bigger is better.
The psychology of militant Muslim men, especially Arabs and Iranians, is driven by shame: The defeat by tiny Israel of the combined Arab armies three times in the last century is shameful to Arabs. The fall of the Persian Empire at the hands of the Greeks is shameful to Iranians. The fall of the Arabian Empire, after a hegemony of 1,300 years, is shameful to Arabs and Iranians alike.
If a Muslim nation decides to strike America, it will want to do so through one or more giant explosions; nothing less will staunch its shame. If, in addition, this Muslim nation aspires to seize the leadership of all Islam, a big explosion is even more desirable; nothing less will establish its dominance.
Therefore, it would be better for America to focus on the threat of nuclear missiles, rather than on the combined threat of weapons of mass destruction. Without the proper focus, our government may fix upon the wrong enemy. For example, in 2003, a risk assessment of dangerous regimes in the Middle East based upon nuclear missiles rather than upon weapons of mass destruction would have identified Iran as our most important target instead of Iraq.