Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nuclear WMD vs. Illegal Drugs

I was to argue for against the following supposition. This one was not very easy. I wish I could do more research on it because I felt like I did not know enough about either aspect of the supposition. There are a couple of charts included in my response. I hope they appear in this posting. I haven't figured out how to correctly incorporate images in the blog posts.

Argue for or against: Nuclear WMD Are Not Likely in Our Times to Be Used, But Illegal Drugs Comprise WMD When Measured in Devastation

"What major catastrophic event upon the Western world will its leaders need in order to start actively listening to Usamah (sic) bin Ladin's demands?" Inspire Magazine Summer 2010

    In July 2010 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula purportedly published the first issue of a new jihad magazine in English. It was a full glossy, 67-page, professionally printed magazine complete with interviews of renowned jihadists, editorials, how-to articles, and even advertisements. Despite the legitimacy and cacophony of speculation about its effectiveness, the magazine demonstrates one thing; there is a thread of anger toward the West. And, the West must pay a price. That price is unclear, but Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are a likely figure. But, are WMD a realistic threat in our post-Cold War world? Or is there another threat that poses even more devastating effects, such as illegal drugs?
    Some may suggest that nuclear WMD are not likely to be used in our time. Instead, the effect of illegal drugs comprise WMD when measured in devastation. Although it is a tempting premise to support, there is evidence to suggest that a nuclear WMD could happen and that illegal drugs should not be characterized as WMD.

The Illegal Drug World

    There is little doubt that illegal drugs comprise a very real threat to our national security. The 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) assesses that illicit drug availability is on the rise (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2010). Drugs present two primary characteristics in terms of their damaging effects. There is the physical aspect that affects users. And there is the trafficking aspect which entails a vast network of growers to sellers and everything in between. The complicated networks of drug traffickers are at the forefront of a war that is increasing in intensity. In a World Policy Journal essay, Tomas Kellner and Francesco Pipitone discuss the deadly drug war in Mexico. Parts of Mexico are under siege. The cartels waging war against themselves and the government demonstrate a rising danger. That is, drug cartels pose a serious threat not only because of the illicit substances they promote but because these organization have become highly sophisticated and heavily armed.
    Kellner and Pipitone (2010) point out that, "A 2008 government raid on the Gulf Cartel seized a cache of anti-armor weapons, cluster grenades, anti-aircraft missiles, armored HUMVEES, and even chemical protective suits" (p. 32). These small scale armies have caused a tremendous amount of damage throughout Mexico. Retired Army General, Barry McCaffrey reported his findings after a 2008 visit to Mexico to meet with a consortium of Mexican and international leaders. Between figures in McCaffrey's reports and Kellner and Pipitone's essay, since 2007, the death's directly related to criminal drug activity alone exceed 16,000. That does not even begin to account for the collateral criminal drug related deaths and injuries. Also, this does not account for any drug related deaths due to the use of drugs. This is just a snapshot of one particular area of one particular state. Similar drug activity is taking place throughout the world.
    In the U.S., the costs associated with illegal drug use and trafficking are also high. The 2010 NDTA estimates that the total financial consequence of drugs is (2010), "nearly $215 billion annually" (p. 1). This is not a statistic that is expected to decrease any time soon. Instead, as the 2010 NDTA warns, we should see an increase in the trend of costs associated with illicit drugs. As for the other costs related to illegal drug use and trafficking - the previous year's NDTA report detailed some of the daunting figures. They include:
  • More than 35 million individuals used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs in 2007.
  • In 2006 individuals entered public drug treatment facilities more than 1 million times seeking assistance in ending their addiction to illicit or prescription drugs.
  • More than 1,100 children were injured at, killed at, or removed from methamphetamine laboratory sites from 2007 through September 2008.
  • For 2009 the federal government has allocated more than $14 billion for drug treatment and prevention, counterdrug law enforcement, drug interdiction, and international counterdrug assistance.
  • In September 2008 there were nearly 100,000 inmates in federal prisons convicted and sentenced for drug offenses, representing more than 52 percent of all federal prisoners.
  • In 2007 more than 1.8 million drug-related arrests in the United States were carried out by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
  • Mexican and Colombian DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.
  • Diversion of controlled prescription drugs costs insurance companies up to $72.5 billion annually, nearly two-thirds of which is paid by public insurers. (p. III)
    Currently, Mexico presents the U.S. with the most troubling image of the threat from illegal drugs. Following his trip to Mexico, McCaffrey (2009) testified to Congress that Mexico was, "engaged in a violent, internal struggle against heavily armed narco-criminal cartels that have intimidated the public, corrupted much of law enforcement, and created an environment of impunity to the law" (McCaffrey, Threats from transnational drug enterprises, 2009). The picture he paints of the Mexican state is one of murder, kidnappings, torture, assassinations, addiction, corruption, and utter chaos.
    What is even more revealing and disturbing about the problem Mexico and the U.S. face is that like an infectious disease, it is spreading. McCaffrey (2009) said, "The malignancy of drug criminality now contaminates not only the 2000 miles of cross-border US communities but also stretches throughout the United States in more than 230 U.S. cities where drug distribution is controlled by Mexican cartels" (McCaffrey, Threats from transnational drug enterprises, 2009). Drugs have been around for a long time, and they will be around for a long time to come. But, the evidence today shows that the virulence of the drug problem is more threatening than a decade ago. Today it threatens national security.
    We must take the illegal drug threat seriously. In an after action review memorandum following the same trip to Mexico, McCaffrey (2008) warned that the stakes in the Mexican drug war are so high that, "We cannot afford to fail" (p. 8). With Mexico as our southern neighbor, the threat of their instability should raise our interest in them.
    The 2008 Joint Operating Environment report, categorized Mexico as one of two states with potential to fail. The report (2008) offers, "Any descent by the Mexico (sic) into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone" (p. 36). According to the report, the reason Mexico is at risk of failure is specifically because of its internal struggle with drugs and drug cartels (JOE 2008). McCaffrey (2009) warned, "Governments that think they can turn a blind eye to the drug trade or give free reign to drug trafficking organizations will discover at the end of the day that their nations will be ravaged by a cancer that rapidly metastasizes into just about every facet of society" (McCaffrey, Threats from transnational drug enterprises, 2009).
    The picture painted of the threat from illicit drugs is bleak, ominous and looming. What is important to note about the devastation from illegal drugs is that it is ongoing. So, these data will continue to accumulate. Their cumulative effect over time is enormous. But, should we characterize it as something akin to a WMD event? The data suggest that drugs inflict a heavy toll on society. What about the toll of a nuclear WMD event?

The Nuclear Threat

    The effects of nuclear WMD are hard to determine. There is a wide range of research that all show varying results. The common characteristic is that the casualties resulting from a nuclear WMD event would be staggering. Only two examples in history offer a glimpse at the potential outcome of nuclear blasts - Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death toll from the blast alone was estimated at 70,000 and 40,000 respectively (The Manhattan Project).
    One particular research report examined the effects of blasts in four large-population cities in the U.S. The vulnerability assessment by William Bell and Cham Dallas (2007) looks at primarily three variables of a nuclear blast - the blast destruction, thermal destruction and radiation fallout. What is interesting about the report and the data from the report is that beyond expected casualties from the blast itself are the extent to which the population would be affected by a taxed health system. They summarize what could happen as follows:
In most conceivable WMD attacks, however, it is reasonable to expect that the health care system would be overloaded with massive numbers of patients requiring an array of professionals with specialized training. If this already stretched medical community was also severely impacted by the very attack that requires its response, the effects would be even more devastating. In addition to the loss of medical care, among the anticipated outcomes for the general public will be fear of invisible agents and contagion, magical thinking about radiation, anger at perceived inadequacies by government entities, scapegoating (sic), paranoia, social isolation, demoralization, and loss of faith in social institutions. (p. 2)
    Based on Bell and Dallas' (2007) computations, the population affected by blast and radiation fallout in New York City alone reaches 1.7M. That is from a supposed device yielding 20 kilotons which, according to their report is equivalent to a tactical nuclear device. In other words, a device much like a bomb, torpedo or even a truck. By way of comparison, the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively ended the war in the Pacific, yielded 15 and 21 kilotons respectively (The Manhattan Project). When Bell and Dallas increased the size of the device to 550 kilotons, something more like a strategic weapon in the Russian arsenal, the devastation more than triples (Bell & Dallas, 2007). Below are portions of the charts Bell and Dallas use to show the effects from a 20 and 550 kiloton detonation (Bell & Dallas, 2007).

    What stands out from the data is that a nuclear event produces a sudden mass of casualties. These figures are hard to comprehend. We only have the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to relate to. Yet, they pale in comparison to Bell and Dallas' modern data. The other factors that are difficult to calculate are the effects on systems. A nuclear detonation will produce a sudden loss of social systems such as the public command and control system, infrastructure, the health system, and financial systems. The toll is heavy, quick and dramatic.

Comparing The Two

    Where should our focus be then? The likelihood of a nuclear event is categorically lower than the reality of drug related events. So, should the reality of the costs of illegal drugs outweigh the possible toll of a possible nuclear event? Or should the dramatic nature of a nuclear event garner our attention while illegal drugs fester? If we focus too much on one thing, something else may become the more grave threat.
    There is certainly a fair argument to be made that our focus on threats right now is unclear. In a New York Times article about the transformed role of the FBI, Eric Schmitt makes the case that while we focus on finding terrorists, other things slip by right under our nose (Schmitt, 2009). He points out (2009), "The F.B.I director, Robert S. Mueller III, has acknowledged the toll of the shift of agents to counterterrorism and intelligence duties. It comes at the cost of resources to combat corporate and financial fraud, and the deadly drug war in Mexico. About 40 percent of the bureau's agents are devoted to fighting terrorism" (Schmitt 2009). Is the FBI correct to be heavily weighted toward terrorism at the expense of countering illegal drugs?
    It comes down to who and what we fear most. We worry about drug effects, but we somewhat understand them. Plus, we can associate drug use with bad behavior. If we do not engage in the bad behavior, we, individually, do not perceive the consequences. Similarly we worry about drug cartels, but we generally know their criminal intentions. As a law abiding citizen it is hard to associate oneself with the criminal world. So if one avoids the criminal world, one reduces their exposure to it.
    We fear nuclear WMD because we do not know what could truly happen. A nuclear attack affects anyone, criminal or innocent. We fear the rogue regime or non-state actor with unknown intentions. Robert Joseph and John Reichart (1999) offer this, "While the utility and legitimacy of nuclear weapons are increasingly questioned in the West, from the perspective of countries like Iran and North Korea there appear to be many potential benefits of possessing even a small handful of crude, low-yield weapons". (p. 2). It may be difficult for the West to conceive of another Western or modern state to initiate a nuclear attack. The Cold War stand-off between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union no longer exists. There is arguably a rational understanding between Western and non-Western democratic states that a nuclear avenue is not one to go down. It is the irrationality of a terrorist organization or rogue state that makes nuclear threat fearful. In that sense, the consequences of illegal drugs are relatively acceptable. The consequences of a nuclear attack are not.


    The notion that nuclear WMD are not likely to be used in our times is a dangerous supposition. We would be negligent as a nation to limit any serious precautions toward thwarting and defending against a nuclear attack. There is a growing threat of nuclear WMD particularly from rogue states and non-state actors. Despite their ongoing affect on society, illegal drugs do not comprise WMD even when measured in devastation. The results of drug use and violence are visible daily. There is a certainty society understands regarding the use and trafficking of illegal drugs. To a certain extent maybe society has been desensitized to it. But, there is no end to the frightening imagination of uncertainty surrounding a nuclear attack. A nuclear event presents an entirely different element in terms of devastation. It is a shock and horror that happens in an instance. It is for that instant that we must prepare and protect against. The fight against drugs is costly, but it is visible. A "major catastrophic event" is potentially unimaginable.
al-Qa'idah Organization in the Arabian Peninsula. (2010, July 1). Inspire Magazine
(this source may no longer be accessible through the internet because of its jihidist affiliation) . Al-Malahem Media.

Bell, W. C., & Dallas, C. E. (2007). Vulnerability of populations and the urban health care systems to nuclear weapon attack - examples from four American cities. International Journal of Health Geographics
, 6, 5-33 DOI: 10.1186/1476-072X-6-5.

Joseph, R. G., & Reichart, J. F. (1999). Deterrence and Defense in a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Environment. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University.
Kellner, T., & Pipitone, F. (2010, Spring). Inside Mexico's Drug War. World Policy Journal , 29-37.

McCaffrey, B. R. (2008, December 29). After Action Report Visit Mexico 5-7 December 2008. Memorandum for Department of Social Sciences . West Point, New York.
McCaffrey, B. R. (2009, October 1). Threats from transnational drug enterprises. FDCH Congressional Testimony, retrieved from .

National Drug Intelligence Center. (2010). National Drug Threat Assessment . Johnstown, PA: Department of Justice.

National Drug Intelligence Center. (2009). National Drug Threat Assessment. Johnstown, PA: U.S. Department of Justice.

Schmitt, E. (2009, August 18). U.S.: F.B.I. Agents' Role Is Transformed by Terror Fight. Retrieved July 20, 2010, from New York Times:

The Manhattan Project. (n.d.). Retrieved July 22, 2010, from U.S. Department of Energy Office of History and Heritage Resources:

United States Joint Forces Command. (2008). The Joint Operating Environment. Norfolk, VA: United States Joint Forces Command.