During the decade that greedy capitalists were inventing the briefcase computer, a.k.a. the Laptop, portable or Notebook PC, government people were developing the suitcase nuclear bomb.
These contrasting products elegantly illustrate the qualitative difference between market and government, private sector and "public", voluntary exchanges and compulsory. The laptop PC, now at a price that almost anyone can afford and with power that would have cost $1 million even when I joined the computer industry, brings untold benefit to mankind; fun, yes, but far more than fun. It brings the ability to perform complex designs and calculations on the go, to slash the time needed to make good business decisions and therefore directly to enhance the world's living standards by enabling more to get done, sooner. In the last 5 years especially, pretty well all economic forecasters have been astonished at America's boom. Even Pols have reaped benefit; they can promise to balance their budget and even expect that to happen, because they badly underestimated the tax revenue they'll receive (alas) from burgeoning profits.
That's some of the payout from the PC, and in part from the laptop variety. Now look at the doleful products of government activity during the same period; an ever more costly health system has followed its increasing intervention; a huge ocean of pure waste lies in the "defence" budget, ready to fight enemies that either do not exist or certainly need not exist; a monstrously intrusive "war on drugs" that has in 90 years utterly failed to reduce drug usage but has created wave upon wave of real, violent crime and savagely reduced the personal freedoms of all of us. And so on, ad nauseam.
And in particular here, to the suitcase nuke.
On September 7th, CBS' "60 Minutes" took us to Russia, and to General Letved, who is their National Security chief and a rival of Boris Yeltsin. He said that the former Soviet Union produced about 200 nuclear bombs that look just like suitcases. Easy for one man to carry, these nasty products of government imagination pack a punch equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT, or about 500 times more than the largest conventional bomb used in WW-II, plus massive radiation.
He estimated that if just one were exploded by a terrorist in a crowded city, up to 100,000 humans would die. And there was worse to come: the location of about half of those 200 bombs was unknown. Letved had searched high and low, and said he had failed to find them. They might be in Armenia, they might be in Latvia, they might be anywhere. They might have been sold to Iraq...
CBS was cautious. Letved might after all have an agenda, to embarrass Yeltsin so as to raise his chances of taking his job; so he might be telling fibs. But since the Russian Army isn't paying its men, the men are having to trade with stolen weapons, and a suitcase nuke would fetch an excellent price in Baghdad. CBS took us to D.C. for comment; nobody denied the possible danger. Nobody said these devices do not exist. And CBS' Steve Kroft did not even ask anyone in "our" government whether the US, too, has a stockpile of suitcase nukes.
But as the true history of the "Arms Race" becomes clearer, it's evident that there never was a time when the Soviets were ahead, technologically. So the safe bet is that if they produced a couple of hundred suitcase nukes, the DoD produced at least that many, and sooner and more deadly. Welcome to reality, folks: your tax dollars have been working hard, ready to destroy human lives.
If the CBS report was even half correct, some very urgent action is needed and unless he feels the heat from you and me it's quite unlikely your average Pol will have the good sense to take it.
We must first note that no acceptable defence exists. One might visualise thousands of armed checkpoints on every road entering every city, such that all suitcases and large boxes be examined by government goons before the carrier was allowed to pass. Well, we don't need to imagine this, it's been tried, in Belfast, and it doesn't work. I've no figures on how many IRA bombs were detected by the British Army checkpoints, but for sure in the last couple of decades, several did get through despite them. Meanwhile, as the b-sticker says, just ONE nuclear bomb can quite ruin your day.
To make checkpoints absolutely proof against penetration even by a carrier willing to perish is 100% impossible. Not only would it totally disrupt the normal productive life of the 99.9999% of travellers who were innocent, it would not defeat the suicide bomber because, upon detection, he would have merely to flick the trigger to accomplish his benighted objective.
So, there's no defence; how about that other favourite of conventional thinking: deterrence? - that splendidly named strategy, Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD? - also impossible. There would not be enough radioactive fragments to piece together evidence of which foreign government, if any, was responsible for sending the suitcase. So whom does one destroy, in retribution?
One policy alone will work, and that is, to remove all possible motivation for such revenge. Today that motivation often takes the form of passionate hatred of the USA by strict Muslims who feel (with excellent reason) that their religion has been savaged by successive waves of US foreign policy designed to assist their enemies. I'm not saying their hands are clean; the invasion of Kuwait was disgraceful, for one example. But I am saying it was no business of the US Government. Nor is Israel. Nor is any other foreign country.
That policy, best called "non-interventionism" is not new, though it is for sure radically different from anything seen in living memory. It was practised and recommended by those who founded this country. Jefferson defined it as "Peace, commerce and friendship with all people, entangling alliances with none." If you were to demand of your Congressman that that firm policy be re-established immediately, we may just survive the Age of the Suitcase Nuke.