The sum of all fears

Right Of Boom by Benjamin Schwartz (above) is about a hypothetical atomic bomb terrorists set off near the White House.
Right Of Boom by Benjamin Schwartz (above) is about a hypothetical atomic bomb terrorists set off near the White House. PHOTO: BENJAMIN SCHWARTZ

In his debut book Right Of Boom, United States official Benjamin Schwartz shows how ill-prepared the world is for a Hiroshima-scale nuclear terror attack

In the past two years, United States government official Benjamin Schwartz has been walking the tightrope of writing about his country's security pitfalls without appearing to criticise his bosses.

Schwartz, who is 31 and married to Singaporean Evelyn Khoo, 33, launched his debut book, Right Of Boom, at the Singapore Management University on Aug 12. Its title is US government jargon for "after an explosion", just as "left of boom" means before a blast.

The "boom" in his book is about a hypothetical 15-kilotonne atomic bomb which unknown terrorists set off near the White House one morning. The shocker that his book lays bare is that the US government has as yet no plan in place to deal with the aftermath of such an attack, beyond rescue and relief procedures.

As the alumnus of Swarthmore College and Johns Hopkins University writes, while there are US government offices with names such as Missile Defence, Counterterrorism, Counterproliferation and Nonproliferation, "there is no office singularly focused on the problem of state-enabled terrorism or state failure to prevent terrorist use of nuclear weapons that is capable of marshalling all instruments of national power to meet this threat".

The father of two young boys should know; he works in the US Defense Department after stints in special operations, counterterrorism, countering nuclear weapons and US Energy Department, and the US State Department, where he worked under then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was mentored by the late uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Right Of Boom
(above) by
is about a
atomic bomb
 terrorists set off
near the White
 House. PHOTO:

Recalling how carefully he had to write his book, Schwartz says: "It wasn't the easiest needle to thread. I didn't feel comfortable criticising current policies. There are significant portions of the book that deal with, say, the public statements of former US government officials and whether or not these are believable given the capabilities that exist. That's about as far as I get to trying to critique current policy."

What he does try to do is apply insights from the past, including how the West responded when the Soviet Union threatened to bomb Germany in the 1960s, to his hypothetical. In doing so, he notes that, till now, the strongest force holding off countries from pressing the nuclear button is their dread of how bad the fallout would be.

That, however, is too wobbly a hook to hang the world's hopes on, argues Schwartz. He recommends that all countries set up a watchdog against nuclear terrorism to defang potential attacks by inspecting shipments of cargo more assiduously for smuggled bomb-making materials. They should also put in place the legal and security mechanisms to ensure such terrorists are directly accountable.

He then points out that while Singapore has no nuclear ambitions to speak of, what he recommends would affect its lifeblood, namely free-flowing trade, as inspections of cargo and the need to share any intelligence it has about suspicious characters would crimp somewhat its open, business-friendly ways.

He rues that governments in general are not developing strategies fast enough to keep up with rapidly developing nuclear technologies because, in the absence of a crisis, that might be too risky politically. "As they put it in military studies," he says, "we always design an army to fight the last war, as opposed to the next one."

Still, as The New York Times book reviewer and national security expert Max Boot noted in February, Schwartz "is to be commended for thinking about the unthinkable".

Schwartz says he was inspired to write his book after reading the 2004 book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Professor Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard University's modern Kennedy School of Government.

Allison had identified three lines that the world should not cross if it is to avoid nuclear war: No loosely circulating nuclear materials, no nascent nuclear weaponry and no nuclear state. Schwartz realised that with what he knew of Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, all those lines had been breached. So he wrote Right Of Boom as a "thought exercise" on the worst-case scenarios from that breach.

Asked why the book does not at all contemplate simultaneous nuclear terrorist attacks worldwide, Schwartz retorts: "What about 10 attacks? What about 15? Why don't we assume a scenario that involves the death of the president and all of his Cabinet? There's no end to that. It's arbitrary."

  • Benjamin Schwartz's Right Of Boom: The Aftermath Of Nuclear Terrorism is available at Books Kinokuniya at $43.44 a copy with GST.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'The sum of all fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe