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The Moral Cost of Nuclear Terrorism

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 28/03/2016 Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

If ISIS gets a nuclear bomb, the planet loses a city. World leaders gathering for the Nuclear Security Summit this month in Washington know this, and that's what they'll be trying to prevent - by shoring up the shaky international system for keeping nuclear materials out of terrorist hands.
What nobody seems to think about at all, though - and what probably won't be a hot topic at the summit - is that any kind of nuclear attack would almost certainly cost us our souls.
I'm not talking about the souls of the perpetrators. I'm talking about those of the survivors.
A terrorist nuclear bomb would be small, simple and mobile, fitting in a U-Haul or a shipping container, difficult if not impossible to detect or intercept. Thousands of people would die immediately or in the aftermath, which would probably include a near-complete shutdown of the global economy. It would be an assault on the modern world itself.
In the wake of an attack so devastating, so terrifying, so world-destroying, all our moral standards governing armed conflict and the sanctity of life would almost certainly wash away. The popular demand to respond in kind - to nuke somebody - would be overwhelming, and for any national leader, nearly irresistible. After a nuclear terrorist attack, no show of force would be too great and no tactic off limits.
We might like to think that our moral compass could withstand the blast and guide whatever response came after. But history doesn't encourage optimism. Moral standards are almost the first casualty of war.
Consider civilian bombing during World War II. At the start of the war, international law hadn't caught up with the destructive capacity of new aircraft technology, but intentional targeting of civilians was still taboo. Then the Nazis, as unencumbered by concern for the sanctity of life as ISIS seems to be, introduced the tactic against Warsaw, and then against British cities.
These raids were ostensibly directed against military-industrial targets in metropolitan areas. But the more civilians that were killed, the easier it became to do it some more - and for the Allies to do it back. So Warsaw led to London which led to Berlin which led to the Blitz which led to the firebombings of Hamburg and Dresden.
In the Pacific, the Japanese bombed civilians in Nanjing, Canton, Shanghai, Chongqing, Bangkok. An enemy's disregard for life practically begs you to act the same way, so in the spring and summer of 1945, that's what U.S. General Curtis LeMay did. U.S. firebombing destroyed 67 Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians before culminating in the atomic destructions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this sense, the A-bomb wasn't anything new. It just weaponized a tactic that had been building since the beginning of the war.
More recent events bear the lesson out. In the aftermath of 9/11, America reversed a standard against torture that dated to George Washington's command to treat prisoners humanely. The nation that prosecuted Japanese army officers for war crimes including waterboarding rebranded the tactic as "enhanced interrogation." The next step was the extralegal tyranny of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and nameless CIA "black sites."
Today, a revived fear of terrorism is spurring presidential aspirants to one-upmanship in their eagerness to carry out atrocities. Donald Trump has proposed killing terrorists' families, forcing the US military to commit war crimes, and bringing back "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." Sen. Ted Cruz enthusiastically supports "carpet bombing" civilian areas and making "sand glow in the dark." Former candidate Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric surgeon, replied, "you got it" when asked if he was "OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians."
It's scary enough that presidential candidates feel free to say such things. It's far more frightening that they're reliable applause lines on the stump.
We like to imagine that our civilizational values run deep in our bones. They don't. Civilization is a gold-leaf veneer over our capacity for violence and depravity. Its maintenance depends primarily on things not going terribly wrong. The adage that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger does not apply to international warfare. What doesn't kill us just tends to make us worse.
If the Nuclear Security Summit goes well, it will shore up our defenses against horrible security mistakes. And the spectacular violence of nuclear or even radiological terrorism must be forestalled at all costs--but not just to save human life. We really need to save ourselves from learning how easy it would be to abandon every moral value we think we hold most dear.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (@TylerWS) chairs the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons for the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of The World Is Not Ours To Save, Brand Jesus, and Fighting for Peace.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Corporation of New York about issues related to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. World leaders will gather in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1 to address the threat of nuclear terrorism and steps toward creating a global nuclear-security system to prevent it. To view all of the posts in the series, visit here. Join the conversation on Twitter at @CarnegieCorp, #NGOsummit, #NSS2016.

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