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Here There Be Dragonfire

It's a beautiful autumnal day here in New York City. The streets are bright, the air is cool and crisp, left-over turkey awaits me, holiday shoppers crowd the sidewalks, and so naturally my mind turns to thoughts of nuclear terrorism.

I don't know how I missed this one, but I did. I'm usually up on all this stuff but this one slipped  me by up until a few weeks ago when somebody in another forum alluded to this particular incident.

Remember the "undisclosed location"? The "Shadow Government"?

Washington Post, Friday, March 1, 2002; Page A01

President Bush has dispatched a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers to live and work secretly outside Washington, activating for the first time long-standing plans to ensure survival of federal rule after catastrophic attack on the nation's capital.

Execution of the classified "Continuity of Operations Plan" resulted not from the Cold War threat of intercontinental missiles, the scenario rehearsed for decades, but from heightened fears that the al Qaeda terrorist network might somehow obtain a portable nuclear weapon, according to three officials with firsthand knowledge. U.S. intelligence has no specific knowledge of such a weapon, they said, but the risk is thought great enough to justify the shadow government's disruption and expense.

Well, I have before me a copy of a book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Introduction to Mr. Allison's book begins:

On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush faced an even more terrifying prospect.

I don't exactly recall what I was doing on October 11, 2001. The building that I work in down there (right next to where the World Trade Center had stood up until exactly one month earlier) was probably still behind the police line. I might have spent part of that day hiking up to the General Post Office right across from Madison Square Garden to fetch the mail. Our post office was closed and all mail for all homes and businesses in our zip code was being redirected to the GPO. Or I might have spent part of my day working on my laptop in my boss's living room. Or, hell, maybe I went to an afternoon movie. There's only so much work you can do when you don't have a place to work.

But here's what the Federal Government was doing on that day:

At the morning's Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragon fire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City.

OK, well, so while I was fetching the company's mail, or tapping away on my laptop in my boss's apartment, or sitting in a darkened movie theater munching popcorn, the federal government was in a complete panic, trying to figure out if this nightmarish report could possibly be true.

Concerned that Al Qaeda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon into Washington as well, the president ordered Vice President Dick Cheney to leave the capital for an "undisclosed location", where he would remain for many weeks to follow. This was standard procedure to ensure "continuity of government" in case of a decapitation strike against the U.S. political leadership. Several hundred federal employees from more than a dozen government agencies joined the vice president at this secret site, the core of an alternative government that would seek to cope in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that destroyed Washington.

I recall thinking at the time I first heard of Cheney being moved to the famous undisclosed location, "That's a bit melodramatic, don't you think?" I reckoned they wouldn't do that if the concern was another attack with airplanes. I reckoned they had to be thinking nuclear bomb which seemed ridiculous to me at the time. This was before I had fully absorbed the effect of what had happened a month earlier. I was still in shock. My day-to-day life had been completely overturned and I wasn't thinking all that clearly about these sorts of things. I'm better now.

Mr. Allison is kind enough to describe for me what such an attack on my city would be like:

If Al Qaeda was to rent a van to carry the ten-kiloton Russian weapon into the heart of Times Square and detonate it adjacent to the Morgan Stanley headquarters at 1585 Broadway, Times Square would vanish in the twinkling of an eye. The blast would generate temperatures reaching into the tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting fireball and blast wave would destroy instantaneously the theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within a third of a mile of the point of detonation. The ensuing firestorm would engulf Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall,  the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden, leaving a landscape resembling the World Trade Center site. From the United Nations headquarters on the East River and the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, to the Metropolitan Museum in the eighties and the Flatiron Building in the twenties, structures would remind one of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building following the Oklahoma City bombing.

On a normal workday, more than half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A noon detonation in midtown Manhattan could kill them all. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout in the ensuing hours....

By the way, if you would like to see what the end of your particular world would be like, Mr. Allison's web site helpfully provides a handy blast map generator. Just plug in your zip code and checkout the extent of your personal fireball.

It's at times like these I'm really reminded what teeny little corpuscles we all are in History's Great Bloodstream. Cheney and a hundred technocrats are evacuated to an undisclosed location when Washington thinks it could have a nuke in its belly. The president stays because if he didn't, the rest of us would get The Really Big Clue about what was really going on. Or, since the Dragonfire report turned out to be false, what the government thought might be going on. They couldn't tell us about it here in New York City. We've all seen enough End-of-the-World movies to know that much.

A CNN flash that the White House had information about an Al Qaeda nuclear weapon in Manhattan would create chaos. New Yorkers would flee the city in terror, and residents of other metropolitan areas would panic. The stock market, which was just then stabilizing from the shock of 9/11, could collapse.

Of course, when you compare that possibility with the possibility of losing over half a million lives, I don't know, maybe chaos doesn't seem so bad. But no, they didn't know if it was true or not. They didn't know if there really was a bomb. No, they were right to keep it from us.

I guess.

No, they were right.

I think.

Yes, Cheney and a hundred technocrats get to know. They get to go to an undisclosed location. And the rest of us, delivery men, CEOs, sandwich counter guys, lawyers, accountants, secretaries, doormen, taxi drivers, school kids, landlords and renters alike... the rest of us need to be kept in the dark. We need to go about our lives unaware of the possible threat of nuclear annihilation maybe parked in a rent-a-van on 39th Street between 5th and 6th (assuming the terrorists could find a parking space, of course).

I can't really be angry that Cheney and the blessed 100 get the chance to save themselves from possible vaporization. And it isn't really a matter of the Big Shots getting know of the danger and the rest of us having to take the hindmost. Somebody has to be left to run the federal government if Washington disappears. Over 250 million of my surviving fellow citizens would need that, even taking into account the fact that the president would then be Cheney.

I don't know what to be angry about, really. There is the generalized fury at the cosmos that my life matters so little to it, but I mean, come on, get a grip, Mike. You think you are the first sentient being to feel that way? I suppose I could be angry at History and how I have such little to say about how things go, but that's just a little league version of being mad at the Cosmos. I can go out and get involved and give money to my candidate and vote in every election and so forth and so on, but if an idiot gets elected, there's not much I can do about it until the next election. If the idiot gets me into a position where there is a nuclear bomb parked 18 blocks from my house and telling me about it would Create Chaos, well, then, that's just too bad for me, I guess. The needs of the many, and all that.

So, I don't know. Maybe I don't get to be angry. Maybe I just get to be scared and helpless. Except, now that I think about it, maybe there is one thing I could be usefully mad at...

Are they, like, doing anything about keeping this stuff out of my city? Graham Allison says it can be done. He says if we used our heads and went about this thing in an organized and careful manner, we could actually prevent such a catastrophe.

I don't know if they are or they aren't taking such care. It seems unlikely to me, on the face of things. They are $225 billion into a war that has nothing to do with this. They seem a bit distracted at the moment. I'm going to have to look into this matter more closely.

And if they aren't doing enough to keep this stuff out of my city, then, yeah, there's something I can be usefully angry about. I don't exactly know what I could do with that anger, though.   I'm just one little Brave American Hero waiting to have his name show up on a plaque somewhere in acknowledgement of never having done much of anything for his country except pay his taxes on time, vote in every election, and die in a nuclear holocaust.

Maybe before you can figure out what you have to do to actually change history, you have to get really, really, really angry at them for treating your life as something so expendable. Maybe getting that angry helps you figure out what to do. Maybe that's it.

Yes. I shall have to look into this matter further. You look into it as well. Maybe the bunch of us can come up with something.


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