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Symposium addresses nuclear proliferation

Eileen Duffy | Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Three speakers offered a variety of thoughts on nuclear proliferation Tuesday evening in a symposium panel discussion called, “Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons in the Age of Terrorism.”

The discussion, sponsored by The Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy as well as The Thomas J. White Center on Law and Government, featured guest speakers Dale Watson, Joseph Cirincione and Jared Silberman, with professor Jimmy Gurulé of the Law School acting as the moderator. Each of the three men offered unique insight into the threat of nuclear proliferation, based on his individual experiences.

“During the most recent presidential debates, there were few issues on which Bush and Kerry could agree,” moderator Gurulé said in the opening. “But when asked about the greatest threat to national security, both candidates responded – without hesitation – nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.”

After outlining the general problem of nuclear proliferation, he introduced the main speakers.

Watson, former executive assistant director of the counter-terrorism division at the FBI, spoke first. He brought up the issue of Sept. 11 and addressed two of the reasons behind the attack.

First, he said, we are the land of immigrants. Second, we have a constitution of liberties.

“With those freedoms comes absolute vulnerability,” Watson said.

He described his fear, which had existed even before Sept. 11, that Osama Bin Laden would acquire nuclear weapons.

“Would he use them?” Watson asked. “Absolutely. And he continues to strive to get his hands on them today.”

Watson also explored the constitutional and judicial effects that a nuclear attack would have on the United States today, such as the issue of quarantining victims.

“You have to be on the offensive,” Watson said in conclusion. “Prevention is the number one key to success.”

Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then spoke, beginning with an anecdote from his recent trip to Germany.

“Some German government officials said to me, ‘What we hear from America, all we hear is to be afraid.’ Germans see terrorists as a problem, but not an overwhelming, terrifying issue,” he said

He then outlined four nuclear threats faced by America – nuclear terrorism, the emergence of new nuclear weapons states (such as North Korea and Iran), the danger from existing arsenals and the diplomatic danger of the collapse of existing non-proliferation regimes.

Cirincione recalled past presidential administrations who successfully fought against various types of weapons – President Richard Nixon against biological weapons and President George H.W. Bush against chemical weapons. In President George W. Bush’s term, the focus became who rather than what as the administration became intent on eliminating the regime rather than the weapons.

Essentially, he said, our focus must be on preventing terrorists from getting at the existing nuclear material in Russia and elsewhere. The ultimate problem terrorists have is getting such material.

“Even a softball-sized chunk of highly-enriched uranium would be the key to them making a weapon,” Cirincione said.

Silberman, associate counsel for Arms Control and International Law in the United States Navy, spoke last on two themes of non-lethal weaponry and non-proliferation.

“Increased lethality of weapons is not necessarily the best means to achieve success,” Silberman said.

He presented an extensive list of non-lethal weapons, including high-powered microwave agents, which would bring a burning sensation upon the enemy’s skin with no harmful effects, acoustic alteration, which would bring about an unbearably loud noise without actually deafening the enemy and calmative agents, which would put enemies in a sleep-like state.

Although most of the weapons he mentioned are currently illegal in warfare due to the ban on chemical weapons, he said such weapons would be beneficial not only in preventing lethality but also in raising morality in soldiers, who would be able to complete their missions without killing. There would also be fewer people needed on the battlefield.

Silberman praised Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative. He pointed out that 34 nations have fully embraced it, and 60 total have accepted it in a general way.

After a question and answer session and some closing remarks from Gurulé, Watson asked permission to add one more thing. He encouraged both law students and undergraduates from Notre Dame to take up public service.

“Serve something other than your own personal interests,” he said. “If not you, who’s going to step up and take the challenge?”