Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Has a weapon ever been invented, no matter how terrible, and not used? The crossbow, the dreadnought, poison gas, the tank, the landmine, chemical weapons, napalm, the B-29, the drone: all had their day and for some that day remains now. Even the most terrible weapon of all, the atomic bomb, that city-buster, that potential civilization-destroyer, was used as soon as it was available. Depending on your historical interpretation, it was either responsible for ending World War II in the Pacific or rushed into action before that war could end. In either case, it launched the atomic age.
During the Cold War, the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relied on a strategy that used to be termed, without irony, "mutual assured destruction" or MAD. Its intent was simple enough: to hold off a planetary holocaust by threatening to commit one. With their massive nuclear arsenals, those two imperial states held each other and everyone else on the planet hostage. Each safely secured more than enough nukes to be able to absorb a "first strike" that would devastate its territory, leaving possibly tens of millions of its citizens dead or wounded, and still return the (dis)favor.
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, nuclear weapons did, too -- without going away. The American and Russian arsenals, and the nuclear geography that underlay them, remained in place, just largely unremarked upon. In the meantime, the weaponry itself spread. In those years, the last superpower, which seldom discussed its own arsenal, selectively focused its energies on containing the spread of nuclear weaponry in three nations: the first was Pakistan some part of whose ever-growing nuclear arsenal it feared might fall into the hands of extreme Islamic fundamentalists in a land Washington was in the process of destabilizing via a war in neighboring Afghanistan and a CIA drone campaign in its tribal borderlands; the second was North Korea, a country encouraged in its quest for nuclear weapons by watching the U.S. take down two autocrats, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up their nuclear programs prior to U.S. interventions; and the third was Iran, which had a nuclear program (started by the U.S. in an era when the country was considered our bulwark in the Persian Gulf), but as far as anyone knows no plans to weaponize it.
In the meantime, Washington (and so the American media) simply ignored the very existence of Israel's massive nuclear arsenal and actually aided the further development of the Indian nuclear program. In these years, it also threatened or, in the case of Iraq, a country that no longer had a nuclear program, actually launched what Jonathan Schell has called "disarmament wars."
That the spread of nuclear weapons, whatever the country, is a danger to us all is obvious. Who exactly will use such weapons next and where remains unknown. But there is no reason to believe that, sooner or later, nuclear weapons -- which have now spread to nine countries -- and are likely to spread further, will not be used again.
Recently, a Texas-based nonprofit got a lot of publicity by announcing that it had fired the first handgun ever made almost totally by a 3-D printer. This act, modest enough in itself, nonetheless highlights a trend of our time. Weaponry that once only a large state, mobilizing scientists, industrial power, and resources could produce can now be made by ever-smaller states -- say North Korea with limited resources and a malnourished populace. Similarly, weapons once made by large companies can now be assembled by individuals. Or put another way, ever more powerful weaponry is increasingly available to ever less powerful states and even non-state actors. It was, for instance, the Aum Shinrikyo cult that, in 1995, produced sarin nerve gas -- "the poor man's atomic bomb" -- in its own laboratory and used it in the Tokyo subways, killing 13, just as in the U.S. anthrax began arriving in the mail a week after 9/11, killing five people.
We don't know where or why a nuclear weapon will be used. We don't know whether it will be a North Korean, South Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli, or even American city that will be hit. All we should assume is that, as long as such weapons are developed, amassed, and stored for use, one day they will be used with consequences that, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves, reports in "Nuclear Terror in the Middle East," are -- even for those who have studied the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- beyond imagining.