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Dirty bombs don't kill people, dirty people do...maybe

By Marcus J. Goldman
web posted June 14, 2004

Who is afraid of uranium? We should not be, or so important physicists are telling us. It looks as if alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla's defense team is up and running-opponents of the war on terror will no doubt relish the news. In noting uranium's benign, almost fun nature, a London based American scientist, Peter D. Zimmerman, recently told the AP that he had used a 20-pound brick of uranium as a doorstop in his office. Zimmerman noted that the government's announcement of Padilla's plans to detonate a uranium-laden explosive was "extremely disturbing" because the risk of spreading radioactivity was insignificant. Whew! What a relief-instead of murder by radiation, Mr. Padilla's explosion probably would have only killed, mutilated and maimed a few dozen. Still, should we be afraid?

Should we fear the alleged bomber's intent? Who cares about intent! Obviously, Mr. Padilla was either too stupid to realize that a uranium bomb would not be as devastating as he had hoped or was unable to obtain cesium or cobalt-the real stuff of dirty bombs. Even a physicist agrees! ''If that's what he planned,'' Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists said of Padilla, ''it shows he doesn't know what he's talking about...'' Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida operative who reportedly encouraged Padilla to use a uranium device to attack the United States, claimed that the dirty bomb was ''not as easy to do as they thought.'' So, the explosion never happened-so much for intent.

Should we fear the alleged bomber's bomb? It would not really have been much of a bomb-a real dud. Just the usual shrapnel, fire and body parts. I suppose that by extension, none of us should fear an unarmed or under-armed terrorist. It seems only fair that terror suspects use the "dirty bomb" defense-"the gun contained only 2 or 3 rounds, the AK-47 jammed after the fourth kill, the shoe bomb never went off, the box cutter was dull," and so forth. What a great precedent!

Should we fear the alleged bomber's legal team? Who would! Padilla, who is being held as an enemy combatant, nonetheless has legal representation. Padilla's lawyer, Donna Newman, noted that U.S. authorities "should have known that dirty bomb allegations were "nonsense.'' Newman went on to state that "When they frightened everybody, what were they trying to do, if they knew better? To show the administration is on top of things?'' She is pro-government indictment of her client-''Maybe the problem is the evidence is so weak, it's laughable,'' she said. No fear here. She seems friendly enough.

Should we fear the psychology of alleged bombers in our midst? Well, psychology can be a pretty powerful weapon in itself. Indeed, ''Just saying the word 'uranium,' the public automatically assumes, 'Oh, it sounds bad,''' said physicist Charles Ferguson of the Washington office of California's Monterey Institute of International Studies. ''Granted, it (uranium) could have a psychological effect'' because of "unfounded fears," said physicist Ferguson. So the psychological weapon would not really be a big deal. Besides, according to statements attributed to Padilla, he was never really planning to go through with any attacks anyway. It is better if we simply accept the premise that principled terrorists are here to stay. We can always seek out counseling if the psychological weapon is more devastating than an actual explosion.

Should we fear the man and what he represents? If the bomb was incapable of spreading devastating radiation, would have essentially acted as a conventional explosive and if the alleged bomber has legal representation, the facts imply an absence of serious threat. All that is left over is the gleeful ideology of one lone ex-gang member, a naive innocent, unjustly held. Who cares what Padilla, a Muslim who trained in terror camps in Afghanistan, represents.

What are the real fears? Uranium is "laughable", it is nothing more than a "doorstop." One real issue is the dismissive attitude-a sigh of relief that the alleged bomb would have been only a "regular" bomb. The notion that a uranium-laden bomb, or a chocolate-laden bomb, or a rubber duck-laden bomb or a psychology-laden bomb would have consequences any less intense is not to be believed. Normalizing evil intent by downplaying its seriousness is akin to condoning terror-it is incomprehensible...unless the true goal is to undermine and devalue the government's efforts to crush terror in our midst. Attorney General John Ashcroft maintains that Padilla planned a dirty bomb that could result in "mass death and injury.'' Ashcroft was absolutely correct-what bomb does not? Those that despise the war on terror should re-think their strategy. What of Padilla‘s alleged uranium bomb plans? According to physicist Oelrich, "If that's what he planned, it shows....he...hasn't done even rudimentary homework.'' The homework was done, the message is clear-dirty bombs don't kill people, dirty people do.

Marcus J.Goldman, M.D. is a Harvard trained psychiatrist and author of three books including "The Joy of Fatherhood" (Crown) and Kleptomania (New Horizon). He has appeared on Larry King Live, Bill O'Reilly and in dozens of popular magazines including Time and People. His political works have appeared in The Washington Times, Tech Central Station and The Boston Herald. Dr. Goldman is a Guest Writer for OpinionEditorials.com and NewsWithViews.com. He is married and has 5 children.

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