Dirty War

22 02 2010

I love war movies.

Spy movies, dirty tricks, government and intrigue—love ’em!

Can’t say exactly why. Oh, sure, I have this ongoing affair with politics (don’t know why that is, either), but while I enjoyed West Wing and Dave, I don’t swoon for the up-front political movies the way I do for the backstage stuff. Even Bob Roberts, which was more backstage than on-, didn’t turn me on. A good—a very good—movie, but nothing I want to watch over and over again.

Unlike Dirty War. I saw this movie for the first time while living outside of Boston. I didn’t have cable then, either, but I did have a t.v., and PBS broadcast this HBO production over the freewaves.  I think I saw it twice.

Well, now three times, since I just watched the DVD from Netflix. Christ, if this movie streamed, I’d probably watch it once a month.

The set-up is simple: We’re shown nuclear smugglers in central Europe, and cops, fire fighters, government ministers, and terrorists, in London. We see radioactive material smuggled into London, cops trying to track down terrorists cells, a government minister who knows better nonetheless lying so as to reassure the public, and the terrorists themselves, as they meet, assemble the bombs, and prepare to carry out their allegedly divine task.

No, no spoilers here. Watch it for yourself.

Again, I”m not quite sure what the attraction is. The movie is well done, and, to this civilian, utterly plausible. The moviemakers note the research behind the movie, and while I can’t vouch for a smidgen of it, I’m still left thinking Yep, that’s how this could work.

I don’t worry about terrorism on a regular basis. I moved to NYC in 2006, aware that it remains a target, but not terribly concerned about it. I don’t know if it will be hit again, but were I afraid that it would be, I’d have moved somewhere else.

I don’t think of this as denial so much as the same kind of practical calculation that eight million of my neighbors have made. I want to be here, so I am.

Still, there is one possibility which, mmm, tweaks me a bit: the detonation of a dirty bomb.

I was the kid who had nuclear nightmares, who was sure that the world would end before I, well, before I’m the age I am now. This could have been the adolescent impossibility of imagining oneself at middle-age, the morbid outlook of a self-destructive depressive, and/or my rational political concerns mutating into nighttime irrationality.

I don’t have dirty bomb nightmares. But I do think, rationally, that if some group really wanted to fuck over a city, their best bet would be through a detonation of a conventional bomb packed around radioactive material.

A nuke itself would be too hard. Even if a group could manage to get its hands on one, there’s the matter of access to a detonator, as well as that of transport and concealment. Yeah, I remember the material on backpack nukes and worries over uneven security of the nuclear stockpile of various nations, but nuclear weapons, even thousands of nuclear weapons, are still relatively rare things.

What about biologicals? The issue here is one of predictability. Anthrax was used to kill a number of people and frighten a hell of a lot more in 2001 and 2002, but the total number directly affected was relatively few. That’s no comfort to the victims, of course, but as a weapon of mass death, biological agents leave much to be desired.

First, there’s the matter of accessing the biological agent. If it’s controlled, as with smallpox, one has to find a way to get hold of it; if it’s not controlled, one has to find a way to get it and control it before it kills you. Ebola is a nasty disease with a high mortality rate, but it is precisely its nastiness which makes it difficult to handle. Flu is capable of killing tens and even millions of people, but to create a flu like the one which hit the world near the end of WWI requires decent lab facilities and highly trained people—and even that is no guarantee that one could derive a virus both highly transmissible and highly virulent, which could then be released in a maximally controlled manner.

Radioactive material isn’t just scattered like pennies on the streets, but it can be culled from college campuses, hospitals, research facilities, and, of course, nuclear power plants. Further, to make uranium or plutonium suitable for a true nuclear explosion requires extensive processing; the cast-offs from low-grade processing can be used as is.

And it’s use can be controlled. Conventional home-made bombs are apparently not that hard to make (I wouldn’t know, not being the bomb-making or -throwing kind); once the radioactive material has been obtained, you steer your van or boat or truck to the location you want to hit and BOOM. Blast damage, fire, death, and mayhem. And long-term radioactive contamination.

My understanding is that New York City has a very good intelligence network (although in the wake of  the apparently mishandled investigation of Najibullah Zazi, the FBI might disagree), and that agents almost certainly are on alert for any and all kinds of bombs, be they dirty or clean.

So I mostly don’t worry. It’s not that I think the cops and intelligence agencies are infallible—hah!—but given that certainty isn’t possible, the best that can be expected is vigilance. Hell, even with the errors of the Zazi case, they did manage to  stop the guy.

But certainty isn’t possible, and bombs do go off.

It’s this sliver of knowledge that has worked its way deep under my skin. It doesn’t bother me on a daily basis, but sometimes, when a train is stopped too long on its tracks, or I notice all  the trucks in the Financial District or the boats in the harbor, I remember it’s there, and I wonder.