February 2003 – The domestic terror alert jumps to 9/11 levels. Heathrow Airport is ringed by tanks. Duct tape and plastic sheeting disappear from Washington store shelves. Osama bin Laden resurfaces. North Korea reopens its plutonium processing plant and threatens preemptive attack. The Second Gulf War is about to begin.
This is not the Apocalypse. But it is excellent preparation for it.
You don't get to a place like this overnight. It takes at least, oh, a decade. We are now paying the wages of the 1990s, our holiday from history. During that decade, every major challenge to America was deferred. The chief aim of the Clinton administration was to make sure that nothing terrible happened on its watch. Accordingly, every can was kicked down the road:
• Iraq: Saddam Hussein continued defying the world and building his arsenal, even as the United States acquiesced to the progressive weakening of U.N. sanctions and then to the expulsion of all weapons inspectors.
• North Korea: When it threatened to go nuclear in 1993, Clinton managed to put off the reckoning with an agreement to freeze Pyongyang's program. The agreement – surprise! – was a fraud. All the time, the North Koreans were clandestinely enriching uranium. They are now in full nuclear breakout.
• Terrorism: The first World Trade Center attack occurred in 1993, followed by the blowing up of two embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole. Treating terrorism as a problem of law enforcement, Clinton dispatched the FBI – and the odd cruise missile to ostentatiously kick up some desert sand. Bin Laden was offered up by Sudan in 1996. We turned him away for lack of legal justification.
That is how one acts on holiday: Mortal enemies are dealt with not as combatants but as defendants. Clinton flattered himself as looking beyond such mundane problems to a grander transnational vision (global warming, migration and the like), while dispatching American military might to quell "teacup wars" in places such as Bosnia. On June 19, 2000, the Clinton administration solved the rogue-state problem by abolishing the term and replacing it with "states of concern." Unconcerned, the rogues prospered, arming and girding themselves for big wars.
Which are now upon us. On Sept. 11, 2001, the cozy illusions and stupid pretensions died. We now recognize the central problem of the 21st century: the conjunction of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.
True, weapons of mass destruction are not new. What is new is that the knowledge required to make them is no longer esoteric. Anyone with a reasonable education in modern physics, chemistry or biology can brew them. Doomsday has been democratized.
There is no avoiding the danger any longer. Last year President Bush's axis-of-evil speech was met with eye-rolling disdain by the sophisticates. One year later the warning has been vindicated in all its parts. Even the United Nations says Iraq must be disarmed. The International Atomic Energy Agency has just (politely) declared North Korea a nuclear outlaw. Iran has announced plans to mine uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel; we have recently discovered two secret Iranian nuclear complexes.
We are in a race against time. Once such hostile states establish arsenals, we become self-deterred and they become invulnerable. North Korea may already have crossed that threshold.
There is a real question whether we can win the race. Year One of the new era, 2002, passed rather peaceably. Year Two will not: 2003 could be as cataclysmic as 1914 or 1939.
Carl Sagan invented a famous formula for calculating the probability of intelligent life in the universe. Estimate the number of planets in the universe and calculate the tiny fraction that might support life and that have had enough evolution to produce intelligence. He prudently added one other factor, however: the odds of extinction. The existence of intelligent life depends not just on creation but on continuity. What is the probability that a civilization will not destroy itself once its very intelligence grants it the means of self-destruction?
This planet has been around for 4 billion years, intelligent life for perhaps 200,000, weapons of mass destruction for less than 100. A hundred – in the eye of the universe, less than a blink. And yet we already find ourselves on the brink. What are the odds that our species will manage to contain this awful knowledge without self-destruction – not for a billion years or a million or even a thousand, but just through the lifetime of our children?
Those are the stakes today. Before our eyes, in a flash, politics has gone cosmic. The question before us is very large and very simple: Can – and will – the civilized part of humanity disarm the barbarians who would use the ultimate knowledge for the ultimate destruction? Within months, we will have a good idea whether the answer is yes or no.