An intercontinental missile can cause widespread terror, as the Iraqi Scuds did in Israel in 1991. However, it is no different militarily from a suitcase or car bomb, or from the German V1s and V2s of World War II. As for blood-curdling talk of bacteriological or chemical weapons, like nuclear ones, they have curiously failed to materialize. They lack the symbolic virility, and thus the terrorist appeal, of a missile.
The greatest menace posed by terrorist regimes is not military, but political. It is their effect on the psychology of victim states. Terrorism relies for its impact on the multiplier of publicity and politics. Most nations can survive physical disasters, whether from bombs or natural catastrophes. Their freedoms wane and their cultures fall apart only when their leaders lose confidence in themselves or seek strength from exaggerating a threat.
The threat of terrorism to the British lies in the overreaction to it of British governments. Each one in turn clicks up the ratchet of surveillance, intrusion and security. Each one diminishes liberty. British Prime Minister David Cameron insists that his latest communications data bill is “vital to counterterrorism.” Yet terror is mayhem. It is no threat to freedom. That threat is from counterterror, from ministers capitulating to securocrats.
Only land armies threaten the integrity and security of states. No land army has threatened Britain since 1940. Nuclear missiles are, I am sure, nasty things, but it is barely conceivable that anyone will ever explode one. Even if used, they cannot bring about the downfall of a state. The claimed “effectiveness” of the 1945 atom bombs on Japan came after a long, conventional engagement that had sapped Japan’s will to fight.
More to the point, it is clear that the only practical way of halting the dribble of nuclear proliferation is by the use of force. Yet all the fantasies of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists will not bring to pass a new global “empire of freedom,” least of all one in which only “we” have nuclear weapons. Smaller states such as North Korea do not seek nuclear arsenals to attack their enemies, but as machismo. They are expensive toys for boys.
Those who worry about these things would do best to worry about the boys, not the toys. Sanctioning and ostracizing nuclear states is so clearly counterproductive that it is astonishing people still propose it. Reducing regimes such as North Korea and Iran to penury does not make their rulers less paranoid, but more so. Humiliating Pakistan with drones, or Iraq or Afghanistan with invasion, does not make them proof against extremism, but the opposite. Everyone knows this. The trouble is it makes a boring story.