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Nuclear Terrorism


Thomas Schelling, via Erik Voeten:

In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!

Schelling then goes through what amounts to the Mueller treatment, detailing all of the steps that would have to take place for terrorists to acquire fissile material and develop a nuclear weapon, which goes some distance to explaining why terrorists have not yet done so.

However, I think that the epistemology of the claim is more interesting than the claim itself.  What Schelling doesn’t explain is why none of the knowledgeable people in 1982 could have come up with the same set of difficulties that we can understand with relative clarity today. The claim seems plausible on its face; if I were a nuclear weapons expert in 1982, I can’t imagine that it would have surprised me, whatever quibbling there might have been with the timing. There’s a certain similarity with claims about the imminence of the nuclear weapons development of Iraq/Iran/Burma et al, but without the same degree of institutional interest that we find in, say, the Israeli intelligence services. As the timing for an Iranian nuclear test keeps getting pushed back, we begin to reexamine our assumptions about the interest that Iran has in nukes and its capability to produce them, questions that should have occurred to us at the beginning but didn’t. In the latter case the timeline has been developed in a deliberately misleading way in order to suggest a much greater threat than actually exists; I don’t really see that in the case of Schelling’s terrorism claim, however.

It would be nice to think that there was some kind of “democratization of expertise” phenomenon happening, in which a closed group of “experts” had been replaced with a much broader social network community, but I’m not sure that’s the case, either. Again, the single best account of why terrorists haven’t acquired nuclear weapons comes from John Mueller, who by most accounts was, in fact, alive and conscious in 1982.

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