Ticking Time Bomb Goes Ffffffffffffttt……

(Thanks to SusanG at Daily Kos for posting the link to The Boston Globe story)

The ticking time bomb scenario is a favorite of partisans who justify torture. Tim Russert used it as his first big GOTCHA, HILLARY question of the season in September’s New Hampshire debate: 

“Senator Clinton, I want to propose a hypothetical to you.  We got the number three man of Al-Qaeda.  We know there’s a bomb about to go off.  We have three days.  We know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?”

As soon as Senator Clinton disavowed torture, Russert (tee hee hee) pointed out that her husband had said “yes” a year earlier.

That Russert, or anyone of public stature, would base a question about fundamental human rights on the story line of second-rate thrillers, including 24, simply indicates the sorry state of discourse in this country. Speaking of 24, it wasn’t just any old time bomb that piqued the paranoia of the paranoid. Who would care about some ole TNT? No, the big scary ticking time bomb is a “suitcase nuke.”


Well, stack the suitcase nuke in the memory hole that includes monsters under your bed. ’tain’t no such beast worth worrying about. That is, if, unlike many in Washington, you care about the science. From the Boston Globe (long quote, but points that need to be made):

“The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies,” said Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. “No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices.”

… Majidi joined the FBI after leading Los Alamos National Laboratory’s prestigious chemistry division. He uses science to make the case that suitcase nukes are not a top concern.

First, he defines what a Hollywood-esque suitcase nuke would look like: a case about 24 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, weighing less than 50 pounds, that one person could carry. It would contain a device that could cause a devastating blast.

Nuclear devices are either plutonium, which comes from reprocessing the nuclear material from reactors, or uranium, which comes from gradually enriching that naturally found element.

Majidi says it would take about 22 pounds of plutonium or 130 pounds of uranium to create a nuclear detonation. Both would require explosives to set off the blast, but significantly more for the uranium. Although uranium is considered easier for terrorists to obtain, it would be too heavy for one person to lug around in a suitcase.

Plutonium, he notes, would require the cooperation of a state with a plutonium reprocessing program. It seems highly unlikely that a country would knowingly cooperate with terrorists because the device would bear the chemical fingerprints of that government. “I don’t think any nation is willing to participate in this type of activity,” Majidi said.

That means the fissile material probably would have to be stolen. “It is very difficult for that much material to walk away,” he added.

There is one more wrinkle: Nuclear devices require a lot of maintenance because the material that makes them so deadly also can wreak havoc on their electrical systems. “The more compact the devices are — guess what? — the more frequently they need to be maintained. Everything is compactly designed around that radiation source, which damages everything over a period of time.”

Maybe the mavens of geez-we-gotta-torture-them-or-else-we’re-all-dead scenarios think hoi polloi won’t have the patience to follow Dr. Majidi’s points. But they themselves don’t have a point, and they should know it.

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