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'War on Terrorism' Winking at Nuclear Terror

Two countries -- each with dozens of atomic bombs -- are threatening to make war on each other. Large numbers of troops have mobilized. Deadly cross-border clashes are intense. And people in charge of both governments have become more bellicose by the day.

Maybe you think this situation calls for U.S. officials and American media outlets to focus on ways of preventing the outbreak of a war that could quickly turn into a nuclear conflagration. If so, your mode of thinking is distinctly out of step with the "war on terrorism."

You see, as the summer of 2002 begins, what matters most is the Pentagon's determination to kill as many Al Qaeda fighters as possible. Some of them are located in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and perhaps also Kashmir, the region that's under bitter dispute by India and Pakistan.

Since the leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad have their fingers on nuclear buttons, their escalating threats ought to concentrate our minds on the very real perils of the situation. An attack with a single 10-kiloton atomic warhead could cause immediate deaths numbering in the hundreds of thousands. For starters.

"American intelligence estimates put the toll in the event of a full exchange of the two nuclear arsenals at 12 million dead with maybe 7 million wounded -- an instant slaughter unprecedented in the history of mankind," Henry Porter wrote in the London-based Guardian.

Such figures, applied to human carnage, may be impossible to grasp. You might think of the World Trade Center catastrophe occurring simultaneously about 4,000 times (leaving aside widespread radiation sickness and longer-term agonies). Such comparisons may be needed to galvanize much attention from the U.S. media, still transfixed as it is with stories related to 9/11.

By now, America's "war on terrorism" often seems to be a war of narcissism. The world view is so extremely self-engrossed -- and so widely accepted by news media -- that the movers and shakers of the Fourth Estate usually don't bat an eye even when rationales get positively loopy.

There was a remarkably myopic -- no, let's not beat around the bush -- there was a remarkably deranged moment on May 28 when Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke voiced concern about the increasing chances of war between the two nuclear-armed states. Why? Because, in order to confront India with additional ground forces, Pakistan was about to pull troops away from its border with Afghanistan and thus weaken efforts against Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers.

Noting that Pakistani troops at the Afghan border have been "enormously, enormously helpful" to the U.S. government, Clarke worried aloud.

"Attention and troops that cannot be focused there because they're focused elsewhere, that's a concern for us because we need as much assistance as possible in guarding that very porous border," she said.

Those comments didn't raise many eyebrows in America's newsrooms.

Hello? While events are rapidly careening in the direction of a war that could bring nuclear disaster to the Indian subcontinent, the Bush administration contends that a brake must be applied -- because of the importance of killing Al Qaeda members this summer?

Like quite a few other regimes, the fanatical Hindu fundamentalists running India's government have echoed the U.S. "war on terrorism" mantra to harmonize with their own militaristic intentions. While the Pentagon was complaining that a slippery slope to nuclear war between India and Pakistan would be inconvenient for Washington's policymakers, the Indian foreign minister employed a familiar lexicon.

"The world recognizes that today the epicenter of international terrorism is in Pakistan," said Jaswant Singh. "Terrorists targeting not only India but other countries, too, receive support from state structures in Pakistan."

Although the consequences of any nuclear detonation in the conflict between India and Pakistan would be a horrific cataclysm, the predictable results are apt to get little advance media attention from major American outlets. In the current war of narcissism -- despite all the self-congratulatory froth after Sept. 11 about the global vistas flung open by the newly enlightened U.S. media -- the news world still revolves largely around the USA and Washington's line of the day.

But perhaps, under the news-you-can-use category, some angles can grab appreciable coverage: If a faraway nuclear exchange takes place, Americans who feel that Strontium-90 would not be appropriate for their current lifestyles should forget about consuming dairy products (that includes lattes and cappuccinos) for at least a few years. They would be wise to cultivate indoor gardens in a hurry. And they'd be well-advised to stay indoors with all windows tightly sealed.

Norman Solomon's books include "Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation" (Delacorte Press), which he co-authored with Harvey Wasserman in 1982.

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