Pervez Hoodbhoy is a member of the Pugwash Council and is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

One wonders what Osama bin Laden and his ilk learned from Hiroshima.

The decision to incinerate the Japanese city and another, Nagasaki, was not taken in anger. White men in gray business suits and military uniforms, after much deliberation, decided that the United States could not give the Japanese any warning, that although it could not concentrate on a civilian area, it should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible. They argued that it would be cheaper in American lives to release the nuclear genie.

Crowds gathered in Times Square to celebrate: There were fewer of the enemy left. Rarely are victors encumbered by remorse. Declared President Truman: “When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”


Not surprisingly, six decades later, even U.S. liberals remain ambivalent on the morality of nuking the two Japanese cities. But terrorists are not ambivalent.

The New York Times reported that before the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States had intercepted an Al Qaeda message that Bin Laden was planning a “Hiroshima” against America. In a later taped message, released before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Bin Laden said, “When people at the ends of the Earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is something that has justification.”

In a recent televised debate between myself and Hameed Gul -- an influential Islamist leader, retired general and former head of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency -- my opponent snarled at me: “Your masters [the Americans] will nuke us Muslims just as they nuked Hiroshima. People like you want to denuclearize and disarm us in the face of a savage beast set to devour the world.”

Gul then vented his anger at those -- like myself -- who opposed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. He sees us as agents of America, apostates and enemies of Islam and the Pakistani state.

This extremist general was making a point that resonates around the globe. The United States has bombed more than a dozen countries since 1948, and recently killed tens of thousands on the pretext of chasing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It claims to be a force for democracy and the rule of law despite a long history of supporting the bloodiest of dictators, rejecting the International Criminal Court and continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

But the nuclear monopoly is breaking down. The making of atomic weapons -- especially crude ones -- has become vastly simpler than at the time of the Manhattan Project. Basic information is freely available in technical libraries throughout the world, and surfing the Internet can bring anyone a staggering amount of detail.

Advanced textbooks and monographs contain details that can enable reasonably competent scientists and engineers to come up with “quick and dirty” designs for nuclear explosives. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students.

By stealing fissile materials in the thousands of former Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, or even a fraction of the vast amounts of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in research reactors and storage sites the world over, it is unnecessary to go through complex processes for uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.

Anger in Muslim countries at the United States has never been higher. The desire for an atomic weapon to seek vengeance -- utterly immoral, foolish and suicidal though it be -- is becoming ever more popular.

The notion of an “Islamic bomb” existed long before Sept. 11. Addressing posterity from his death cell in a Rawalpindi jail, where he would be hanged two years later, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, wrote in 1977: “We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilizations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilization was without it, but that position was about to change.”

Addressing an Islamic conference in Tehran in 1992, the Iranian vice president, Sayed Ayatollah Mohajerani, said, “Since Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons, we, the Muslims, must cooperate to produce an atomic bomb, regardless of U.N. efforts to prevent proliferation.”

In the celebrations following Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, the decades-old religious party Jamaat-e-Islami paraded bomb and missile replicas through the streets of Pakistani cities. It saw in the bomb a sure sign of a reversal of fortunes and a panacea for the ills that have plagued Muslims since the end of the Golden Age of Islam. In 2000, I captured on video the statements of leaders of jihadist, right-wing political parties in Pakistan who also demanded a bomb for Islam.

It is impossible, however, to conceive of any Muslim state risking retaliation by declaring that it has an Islamic bomb that would be used for defense of the ummah -- the Islamic community of believers -- against the United States or Israel. The danger of a nuclear conflict comes from radicalized individuals within the states.

Although Pakistan’s military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its nuclear weapons being taken for a ride by some radical Islamic group, it wasn’t taking any chances. Shortly after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began in October 2001, several weapons were reportedly airlifted to safer, isolated locations within the country, including the northern mountainous area of Gilgit.

This nervousness was not unjustified -- two strongly Islamist generals of the Pakistan army, close associates of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had just been removed. Dissatisfaction within the army concerning Pakistan’s betrayal of the Taliban was (and is) deep. Almost overnight, under intense U.S. pressure, the Pakistan government had disowned its progeny and agreed to wage a war of annihilation against it.

Fears about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were compounded by revelations that a high-ranking nuclear engineer, Bashiruddin Mahmood, and a materials specialist, Chaudhry Abdul Majid, had journeyed several times into Afghanistan in 2000. Both scientists espouse radical Islamic views. Mahmood had even been photographed with Bin Laden.

Today, the United States lives in fear of the bomb it created, because the decision to use it has already been made. Pious men with beards will decide when and where on U.S. soil atomic weapons are to be used. Shadowy groups, propelled by fanatical hatreds, scour the globe for materials. They are not in a hurry. Time is on their side. They are doubtless confident they will one day breach Fortress America.

The possibilities for nuclear attack are not limited to the so-called suitcase bomb stolen from the arsenal of a nuclear state. In fact, getting and exploding such a bomb is far more difficult than the use of improvised nuclear devices fabricated from highly enriched uranium, constructed in the very place where they will eventually be detonated. Still more likely is an attack on a vulnerable nuclear reactor or spent fuel repository.

Some nuclear weapons experts say privately that it is not a question of if but when the attack will happen.

This may be too pessimistic, but tighter policing and monitoring of nuclear materials (and rapid reduction of stockpiles) and nuclear weapons knowledge must be the first step. There should not be the slightest delay in moving on this. But this is far from sufficient.

If nuclear weapons continue to be accepted by nuclear weapon states as legitimate instruments of deterrence or war, their global proliferation -- whether by other states or non-state actors -- can only be slowed at best. Coercive nonproliferation will only serve to drive up demand. Nonproliferation by cooperation and consent cannot succeed as long as the United States insists on retaining and improving its nuclear arsenal. By what reasonable argument can others be persuaded to give up, or not acquire, nuclear weapons?

So what will happen when religious fanatics succeed in a nuclear attack? The world shall plunge headlong into a bottomless abyss of reaction and counter-reaction in a horror the human mind cannot comprehend.

Who will the United States retaliate against? Will the United States nuke Mecca? The capitals of Muslim states? What will the United States and its allies do as their people fear more attacks? Will they expel Muslims from the United States and Europe, or herd them into internment camps as was done to Japanese Americans in World War II? Hiroshima signaled a failure of humankind, not just of the United States. The growth of technology has far outstripped our ability to use it wisely. Like a quarrelling group of monkeys on a leaky boat, armed with sticks of dynamite, we are embarked on an uncertain journey.

Humanity’s best chance of survival lies in creating taboos against the manufacture of nuclear weapons -- such as those that already exist for chemical and biological weapons -- and to work rapidly toward their global elimination.