If It Doesn’t Explode, Is It a Bomb?

This is interesting because I watched The Manhattan Project last night. I was just thinking how this ill-named movie–about a genius teenager who sneaks into an upstate New York plutonium-refining laboratory and steals enough plutonium to make a 50-kiloton bomb and then actually does so–could never be made today, and how amazing it is that it’s actually still shown. Not only is it amazing in its political leanings: i.e. that a high school student might be justified in making a nuclear device as a political statement. But also in its technical detail. It basically tells takes you through all the steps necessary to make a nuclear device. And it tells you that this information is available in libraries and on the Internet. And I have to agree that this is okay. The problem is not that people know how to make bombs (which has been true since long before the Internet or even Abie Hoffman) or even that they have access to bomb-making materials (because while I agree that plutonium has no civilian purpose, it’s morally arguable and turning out to be logically and logistically prohibitive to connect every purchase of fertilizer and diesel fuel with truck rentals and report such to the FBI, not even taking into account to all the “flying lessons without landings”-type anomalies that crop up in the American experience), but that there are ideologies that permit and require bomb making as a mode of expression. Because people will always have ways of killing other people, en masse or otherwise. Let’s work on the why, not the how. If you believe in gun ownership and live under a roof that also shelters “assault weapons” (which many people did, possibly unknowingly and for various technical reasons, under the Clinton administration), then you have to believe in this. Yes, plutonium and C-4 in the public domain equals bad. Let’s definitely ask how it’s getting there. But let’s also ask how people are getting to the point where they feel they have to use it. Because I have the technology to kill a lot of people if I want–I just don’t. I could walk out of the house with about 500 rounds of high-power, high-lethality ammunition within 60 seconds of being chambered into highly-accurate and rapid-fire firearms, but I don’t. Society as we know it is predicated, more than almost anything else, on the belief, the faith if you will, that I simply won’t do that. Not can’t, won’t. And you know what? It’s not even morality that keeps me from doing it. It’s an absence of morality, it’s a belief in humanity, it’s the lack of a need to further my agenda and a logical mindset that tells me that, no matter what (maybe, though there are conditions that might justify revolution, and my right to revolt is even voiced in The Declaration of Independence) there’s a better way.

Having access to plutonium and C-4 wouldn’t push me over the edge any more than keeping 15-round clips out of the hands of most Americans prevents massacres. But that’s how we mostly address it. People who want to kill people find ways to do it. You don’t even have to be very smart to accomplish it. Would you rather live in a world that locks down every technique and substance or a world that discourages the furthering of ideologies that exploit those technologies for anti-social purposes?

I think what most bothers me about this kind of discussion is that I feel like I was raised in a climate of second-hand radicalism and now I’m being told that those expectations and ways of thinking are entirely wrong. How do I reconcile that? I know, given the current climate, some people think that their forays into liberalism were misguided, but how do they so easily discount their investigations of radicalism? How did they come to accept this populist viewpoint that the whims of the many invalidate heartfelt beliefs and reasoned arguments of the few, even when the difference between the “many” and the “few” is within the margin of error? And–this is the hardest part to imagine–when did they start to believe that their personal, private interests were in any way associated with the many? I would argue that the many has done nothing but attempt to and succeed in screwing the few over for most of their lives. The few owe the many nothing but scorn and skepticism. And jingoism and white middle classism aside, we’re all the few. I don’t care who is in power, you owe it to yourself to distrust them and be against them. If I’m wrong, how did I mis-learn this lesson so badly? Because I have to tell you, if the thought police are going to start coming into our houses, mine has to be pretty high on the list.

Knowledge is not the enemy. Technique is not the enemy. The ability to make (or possess) a bomb is no different from the ability to make (or possess) a gun or gasoline. Doesn’t it seem like ideologically, if we’re going to accept the revolutionary spirit that has gotten us to this point, we have to accept all further expression of that revolutionary spirit? Can we really say that today we must stop, that we’re done, that we’ve reached the pinnacle of human evolution and achievement? We all have a status quo to protect. Part of “getting old” is formulating this status quo. Does every generation’s progressivism have to turn to conservatism? Do we all have to be so arrogant that we believe that something we envisioned, either personally or as a generation, is the end-all and be-all?

Am I reading too much into this? Does the reporting of this and me receiving it mean something other than “this should not be out there” or “these people are evil?” Because I would guess that several terabytes of data at Los Alamos trumps an article on bomb belt making in terms of total destructive evil. I mean how much, morally, does our “superior” ideology protect us? I don’t believe in “us and them” totality, but taken as an argument, can we use “our” ideology against “theirs” effectively? That seems flawed. And if we don’t believe in total transparency, if we don’t believe in the ultimate freedom implicit in human free will, if we believe that there are ideas that are so dangerous they must be quashed by totalitarian means, then I’m not sure how we can construct a world we want to live in.

I seriously believe it should not be a crime to speak or write or publish the technique of making a bomb. Thought cannot be a crime. Expression should not be a crime. The power of incitement is in the mind of the beholder and something for justice and the court to decide. But reportage and statement of fact is a long long way from incitement. If thought becomes a crime then we have claimed, through arrogance or ignorance, that we have had every thought that will ever be worth having, that we as a culture are “done,” and that will mean we as a species have outlived our usefulness. If we cannot see the difference between allowing an ideology that conflicts with ours and the survival of our ideology, then we are no different from “them.” “They” are about controlling thought. We can’t afford to be.

One thought on “If It Doesn’t Explode, Is It a Bomb?”

  1. You made me go look up quotations, because everything I want to say I know has already been said, and said better, by better people than I. I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for but here are a few that begin to get at it.

    Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man.
    – Bertrand Russell

    Passive acceptance of the teacher’s wisdom is easy to most boys and girls. It involves no effort of independent thought, and seems rational because the teacher knows more than his pupils; it is moreover the way to win the favour of the teacher unless he is a very exceptional man. Yet the habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life. It causes man to seek and to accept a leader, and to accept as a leader whoever is established in that position.
    – Bertrand Russell

    The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is besides the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.
    – Justice Anthony Kennedy (1936 – )

    I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.
    – Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), to Archibald Stuart, 1791

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