Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Beat Goes On

The Chicago Tribune describes a new method for detecting nuclear material. The Los Alamos-developed detector relies on measuring the interaction between cosmic rays and and the material being scanned. The different materials have interaction signatures which identify them.

By placing detectors above and below a vehicle, scientists can monitor muon interaction with different materials in the vehicle's cargo. The higher density a material is, the more muons will scatter when they make contact. A computer uses the scatter data to create an image of the different materials in the vehicle. High-density materials, such as plutonium or uranium, are flagged.

The system is said to require only 20 seconds to scan a shipping container and because it simply measures cosmic rays which are present in the everyday environment, the method does not pose a risk to users, even illegal immigrants who might be hiding within the container.

The Homeland Security site at Ohio State has more details on the actual application of this and other technologies.

Bolstering its assets to deter a dirty-bomb threat, the Bush Administration is expected to announce plans to considerably expand homeland security monitoring efforts for radioactive materials coming into and traveling within the nation, The New York Times reported 1 February. The plan reportedly calls for the establishment of the office of domestic nuclear detection, to be housed within DHS, to coordinate the consolidation of the presently fragmented network of radiation detection equipment. ... The security department is the biggest player in this field, installing more than 400 radiation monitors in the past two years at ports, border crossings and post offices that handle international mail. Cities like New York have also been buying detection equipment. "The threat is very real," said Representative Heather A. Wilson, a New Mexico Republican who led a recent study that called for better coordination of nuclear security efforts. "The possibility of nuclear material falling into wrong hands may be small, but it would have devastating consequences."

Recent -- and very real -- successes at spreading democracy in the Middle East, even coupled with impressive technological advances will not change the fact that widely available commercial technology has put enormous destructive potential in the hands of private groups. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, once the sole province of states, may become available to powerful nonstate organization or even individuals and we will always have to guard against them. General John Abizaid, during a trip to Baghdad covered by US News and World report used a curious term to describe the GWOT, as if he stood not in a particular place, but was the universal soldier standing on the timeless field of conflict.

The White House uses the term "global war on terror." With the military's well-known fondness for acronyms, this has, inevitably, been reduced to GWOT, but Abizaid tends to cast the conflict slightly differently, as the "war on extremism" or the "long war." ... "We didn't have the guts to get out in front of the fascists or the Bolsheviks. This time we have to get in front. This time we have a chance. If we don't fight this fight here, we will fight it at home. I would ask you to please talk to your captains, young gunnery sergeants, and tell them we need them. We need them to fight that long war."

A National Journal interview late last year with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker brought up much the same theme.

NJ: As you look forward, how long do you foresee the global war on terrorism lasting?

Schoomaker: In my view, the conflict we're now engaged in is not a short-term endeavor. I think we're into something that will entail some level of conflict for a great deal of time to come. Some people see war and peace as a light switch. When the lights are off, it's peacetime. When the lights go on, it's wartime. I see more of a dimmer switch. We'll see the intensity wax and wane, but there will always be some level of conflict going on.

George Santayana ridiculed Woodrow Wilson's ambition to fight a 'war to end all wars'. "Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war." Some plagues are cured but for a season; though that is enough. Santayana was a brilliant philosopher, but he would have made a poor garbage collector.