The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Does anyone know how to put the genie back in the bottle? Does anyone believe that in the long run Iran, North Korea, other states, and radical terrorist groups can be prevented from getting the bomb and the means to deliver it if they are determined to have it? We must do whatever we can to slow the proliferation, but we are entering a new nuclear age with unknown dangers and no certain solutions.
If only nation-states get nuclear capability, perhaps a resurrected or continuing form of MAD (mutually assured destruction) would work once more as it did when the USA and the USSR confronted each other with missiles aimed at vital targets. Nations have territories with vulnerable cities. They have leaders with instincts of self-preservation for themselves and their homelands and with fears of self-destruction. But how do you retaliate against a terrorist group with a network of leaders scattered widely? When that is compounded with a suicide mentality that cannot be deterred by threats of death, we have a new menace unlike anything we have known in the past. If terrorists are willing to sacrifice their own existence, they may have no qualms against destroying thousands, even millions, of people regarded as enemies of God and Islam.
Islam has rules of war deep in its history that in some respects is like the just war tradition in Christianity. In particular, it forbids the killing of non-combatants, especially women, children, and other Muslims. It requires good cause and has norms of proportionality that limit the destruction that can be wreaked on enemies. But under the novel conditions of the modern world, one can find scholars who are modifying that tradition to cover suicide killings. One can be sure that warrant can be found by learned scholars and lesser intellects for any horror, any form of jihad, that may be perpetrated if it achieves ends sufficient to justify the means
The underlying problem is deep hatred of the United States and its friends that cannot be easily ameliorated. Contrary to zealots who see us as morally pure and attribute the unprovoked perfidy of others to their own self-generated evil, we have contributed to the rise of anti-American feelings by what we have done and not simply by what we are as shining lights of virtue and innocence.
To focus on the Middle East (North Korea requires a different analysis), two major events may be specified. The first is the unwavering, one-sided support of Israel against the Palestinians. The second is the role of the US in overthrowing the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953. We should add to this the presence of American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries, not to mention US support of Arab regimes considered by the extremists to be corrupt. This is not to deny the reality of internal psychological-cultural factors that may have generated feelings of jealousy, inferiority, humiliation, and hostility in face of the fact that Islam, once a leading force in the advance of civilization, has in recent centuries been in the backwaters of scientific and cultural creativity, as well as military power, as compared to the Judeo-Christian nations.
In the background is the fact that the United States is the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon against another nation. To this should be added the fact that to Muslim eyes it is sheer hypocrisy for the nations that now have nuclear weapons to assume the right of preventing others from acquiring what they already have. This includes Israel, who everybody knows has a nuclear capability, although they do not admit to it. By what logic do we presume to tell others they cannot have what we have? As a matter of practical necessity and realism, it may be necessary to prevent proliferation when we can, but we should not fail to see how all this looks to Muslim eyes. How do we answer their question: If we can't have them, why don't you get rid of yours?
It may be that history will work itself out without a nuclear conflagration and lead to a world free of these horrible weapons. It is clear, however, that for the forseeable future we will live in a dangerous world faced with novel challenges.
If you are having trouble staying awake after you go to bed at night, read an article by Noah Feldman, "Islam, Terror, and the Second Nuclear Age," in the New York Times Magazine, (October 29, 2006), 50ff. Feldman lays out the issues and provides instructive historical background.