- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Who is afraid of uranium? We should not be, or so important physicists are telling us. It looks as if alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla’s defense team is up and running — opponents of the war on terror will no doubt relish the news.

In noting uranium’s benign, almost fun, nature, London-based American scientist Peter D. Zimmerman recently told the Associated Press that he had used a 20-pound brick of uranium as a doorstop in his office. Mr. Zimmerman noted that the government’s announcement of Mr. Padilla’s plans to detonate a uranium-laden explosive was “extremely disturbing” because the risk of spreading radioactivity was insignificant. Whew. What a relief — instead of murder by radiation, Mr. Padilla’s explosion probably would have only killed, mutilated and maimed a few dozen. Still, should we be afraid?

Should we fear the alleged bomber’s intent? Who cares about intent? Obviously, Mr. Padilla was either too stupid to realize that a uranium bomb would not be as devastating as he had hoped or was unable to obtain cesium or cobalt — the real stuff of dirty bombs. Even a physicist agrees. ”If that’s what he planned,” Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists said of Mr. Padilla, ”it shows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda operative who reportedly encouraged Mr. Padilla to use a uranium device to attack the United States, claimed that the dirty bomb was “not as easy to do as they thought.” So, the explosion never happened — so much for intent.

Should we fear the alleged bomber’s bomb? It would not really have been much of a bomb — a real dud. Just the usual shrapnel, fire and body parts. I suppose that by extension, none of us should fear an unarmed or underarmed terrorist. It seems only fair that terror suspects use the “dirty bomb” defense — “the gun contained only two or three rounds, the AK-47 jammed after the fourth kill, the shoe bomb never went off, the box cutter was dull,” and so forth. What a great precedent.

Should we fear the alleged bomber’s legal team? Who would? Mr. Padilla, who is being held as an enemy combatant, nonetheless has legal representation. Mr. Padilla’s lawyer, Donna Newman, noted that U.S. authorities “should have known that dirty bomb allegations were nonsense.” Ms. Newman went on to state that “when they frightened everybody, what were they trying to do, if they knew better? To show the administration is on top of things?”

Should we fear the psychology of alleged bombers in our midst? Well, psychology can be a pretty powerful weapon in itself. Indeed, “Just saying the word ‘uranium,’ the public automatically assumes, ‘Oh, it sounds bad,’ ” said physicist Charles Ferguson of the Washington office of California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies. “Granted, it [uranium] could have a psychological effect” because of “unfounded fears,” said Mr. Ferguson. So the psychological weapon really would not be a big deal. Besides, according to statements attributed to Mr. Padilla, he was never really planning to go through with any attacks anyway. It is better if we simply accept the premise that principled terrorists are here to stay. We can always seek out counseling if the psychological weapon is more devastating than an actual explosion.

Should we fear the man and what he represents? If the bomb was incapable of spreading devastating radiation and would have essentially acted as a conventional explosive, and if the alleged bomber has legal representation, the facts imply an absence of serious threat. All that is left over is the gleeful ideology of one lone ex-gang member, a naive innocent, unjustly held. Who cares what Mr. Padilla, a Muslim who trained in terror camps in Afghanistan, represents?

What are the real fears? Uranium is “laughable”; it is nothing more than a “doorstop.” One real issue is the dismissive attitude — a sigh of relief that the alleged bomb would have been only a “regular” bomb. The notion that a uranium-laden bomb, or a chocolate-laden bomb, or a rubber-duck-laden bomb or a psychology-laden bomb would have consequences any less intense is not to be believed. Normalizing evil intent by downplaying its seriousness is akin to condoning terror: It is incomprehensible unless the true goal is to undermine and devalue the government’s efforts to crush terror in our midst.

Attorney General John Ashcroft maintains that Mr. Padilla planned a dirty bomb that could result in “mass death and injury.” Mr. Ashcroft was absolutely correct — what bomb does not? Those who despise the war on terror should rethink their strategy. What of Mr. Padilla’s alleged uranium bomb plans? According to Mr. Oelrich, “If that’s what he planned, it shows … he … hasn’t done even rudimentary homework.” The homework was done, the message is clear — dirty bombs don’t kill people, dirty people do.

Dr. Marcus J. Goldman, a psychiatrist, is author of “The Joy of Fatherhood.”

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