Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Things that go boom
Traditionally, when a law enforcement agency seizes a large amount of drugs they use a curious formula to report the "street value" of the seizure. They figure out the price of the smallest retail unit at the lowest level of distribution, convert the seizure into a number of that unit, and multiply up. This way the drugs are given the maximum number of dilutions and price mark-ups. The "street value" is thus inflated many times over the real amount that the drugs were likely to have earned for the dealers. This is just good spin for the agencies. They maximize their victories and minimize their defeats. We all do this to some extent.

I offer that as a cautionary tale because I'm about to engage in that kind of spin. Call it truth in advertising.

Both sides are spinning the missing al Qaqaa explosives story today. The other side is saying lots of explosives and munitions were lost in the chaos of the fall of Iraq. No one is even sure when this exact stockpile went missing. I'm not sure why this is supposed to be reassuring to us or why it should exonerate the administration of criminal incompetence. This was not a secret supply dump. Al Qaqaa had been under international surveillance for twelve years. Couldn't we have managed some aerial or satellite surveillance for three more weeks? Why wasn't it secured? Again, wasn't the stated purpose of the war, keeping big weapons out of the hands of bad people? Why does Scott McClellan think telling us they lost track of many times this much explosives will make us sleep better or want to vote for George?

Our side is using arguments that might sound to some as suspiciously similar to the "street value" presentation. We have been trying to divide 380 tons of high explosives into units that the average American can grasp. I'm going to say that this kind of rhetoric is justified in this case, because most of us don't have much knowledge of explosives beyond fireworks and those kitchen chemistry experiments we did in junior high and still deny. TV and movies are no help because bombs ther are always either unecessarily huge, for dramatic effect, or ridiculously tiny.

The two best comparisons I've seen are to other well-known terrorist attacks. Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland using one pound of this type explosive. Three quarters of a million pounds are missing from al Qaqaa. That's enough to blow up a 747 every hour of every day for the next 87 years.

Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City using a truck load of a much weaker home-made explosive. With the al Qaqaa explosives he could have fit enough to commit the same crime into the back of a Cooper Mini. Three quarters of a million pounds is enough to blow up the Murrah Federal Building 5000 times.

So far the most encouraging sign I can see is that the Iraqi insurgents are not using the explosives very efficiently. That no comfort at all to the families of those who have killed with the stuff. And we have no reason to believe they won't get better at using it.

Personally, I'm inclined to stock up on ammunition and dried beans and retreat to the old family cabin in the roadless Alaskan wilderness for the next decade.

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