In its constant quest to out-clever itself, Slate.com ran a series last week entitled How Is America Going To End? After readers participated via a “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” interactive feature, Slate reported:
The most popular out of 144 scenarios was loose nukes: “Taliban fighters wrest nuclear weapons from a destabilized Pakistan. Or al-Qaida acquires a small arsenal of nukes from a disintegrating Russia. … The nonstate actors launch against the United States in an attack exponentially worse than 9/11.”
Meanwhile, Barton Gellman reported in the Washington Post on Dick Cheney’s post-White House life:
John P. Hannah, Cheney’s second-term national security adviser, said the former vice president is driven, now as before, by the nightmare of a hostile state acquiring nuclear weapons and passing them to terrorists. Aaron Friedberg, another of Cheney’s foreign policy advisers, said Cheney believes “that many people find it very difficult to hold that idea in their head, really, and conjure with it, and see what it implies.”
Difficulty conjuring with the acquisition of nuclear weapons is one charge you can’t level at al Qaeda. For years, it’s been seeking the “crown jewels,” according to Paul Williams in books such as The Day of Islam: The Annihilation of America and the Western World. While the support Williams receives from arch-conservatives such as Newsmax.com might detract from his credibility, the fact remains that nuclear terrorism is an issue addressed, for the most part, by those ranging from the right to the center.
More credentialed than Williams, Graham Allison of Harvard’s Belfer Center put nuclear terrorism on the map after 9/11 with his primer on the subject, Nuclear Terrorism. But the definitive book on the subject wasn’t released until 2007 — On Nuclear Terrorism by the Council of Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi. If you’ll forgive a composite comment, it’s been called “the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and technically informed treatment [of] the opportunities and difficulties nuclear terrorists would face.”
Progressives, meanwhile, tend to shy away from the subject of nuclear terrorism. Most likely they fear providing the hard right with any more ammunition to advocate for the continuance or intensification of our operations in nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where terrorists, depending on who you believe, have either been harbored or taken refuge. But ignoring nuclear terrorism serves nobody’s best interests. After all, the threat has been around since the dawn of the nuclear age.
Dovetailing with my curiosity about nuclear weapons is a soft spot for Film Noir. You know, those post-World War II crime movies, in which the frequent nighttime settings seem even more nighttimey because they were filmed, for the most part, in black and white.
Anyone familiar with Noir — more an umbrella term or a style than a genre — can’t help but wonder why, after the devastating experience of World War II, Americans were still attracted to cynicism and violence. Perhaps it was because the smooth transition our government thoughtfully provided to Cold War fear — via the Red Scare — and nuclear paranoia — thanks to our own development (and use) of nuclear weapons.
In 1955, near the end of Noir, one of the best examples of the style, Kiss Me Deadly, was released. Its director was Robert Aldrich, who later went on to make films like The Dirty Dozen. You wouldn’t think a movie based on the work of an author as elementary as Mickey Spillane would become the Noir style’s standard bearer.
But the scriptwriter took liberal measures with the book and the character, P.I. Mike Hammer, as played by Ralph Meeker (who was never able to capitalize on his success beyond a busy TV career, perhaps because of his claxon of a voice). Hammer is an archetype of the ends-justify-the-means-cop, like Clint Eastwood’s character in Dirty Harry, that came to dominate crime films.
In Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer is unsure of what he’s trying to track down. His faithful and attractive secretary, Velda, who’s actually more of an assistant P.I., dubs it the “great whatsit.” A usually hostile police detective drops hints: “Manhattan Project. . . Los Alamos. . . Trinity.”
Near the end of the film an evil doctor kidnaps Velda and Mike in quick succession. “How civilized this earth used to be,” he remarks to Mike. “But as the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.”
Turns out the doctor managed to procure nuclear material, presumably from an American lab. What were “treasures” to him then are al Qaeda’s “crown jewels” today. Not only that, but what amounts to loose nukes are packed in a leather box (presumably lined with lead) that resembles an elaborate camera case — an early nuclear suitcase, if you will. Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase is thought to be a tribute to Kiss Me Deadly.
Then the doctor tells his young lover, who’s also got designs of her own on the radioactive material: “The head of the Medusa — whoever looks on her will be turned into brimstone and ashes.” As in a nuclear explosion.
When she shoots the doctor and opens the “nuclear suitcase,” she goes up in a blaze of radioactive glory. After Mike frees Velda and they escape, the house is rocked by a series of explosions. Unfortunately, by not representing them as big mushroom cloud instead, Aldrich failed or wasn’t allowed to capitalize on the movie’s full apocalyptic potential.
In an ironic postscript, the actress who played Velda, Maxine Cooper, later became an activist. After leading campaigns against House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood blacklists, she spearheaded protests by those in the entertainment industry against nuclear weapons.
First posted at the Faster Times.