Message versus Method; Why More Is at Stake in the Case of Padilla

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Who is afraid of uranium? We should not be, or so important physicists are telling us. It looks as if alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla's defense team is up and running - opponents of the war on terror will no doubt relish the news.

In noting uranium's benign, almost fun, nature, London-based American scientist Peter D. Zimmerman recently told the Associated Press that he had used a 20-pound brick of uranium as a doorstop in his office. Mr. Zimmerman noted that the government's announcement of Mr. Padilla's plans to detonate a uranium-laden explosive was "extremely disturbing" because the risk of spreading radioactivity was insignificant. Whew. What a relief - instead of murder by radiation, Mr. Padilla's explosion probably would have only killed, mutilated and maimed a few dozen. Still, should we be afraid?

Should we fear the alleged bomber's intent? Who cares about intent? Obviously, Mr. Padilla was either too stupid to realize that a uranium bomb would not be as devastating as he had hoped or was unable to obtain cesium or cobalt - the real stuff of dirty bombs. Even a physicist agrees. ''If that's what he planned,'' Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists said of Mr. Padilla, ''it shows he doesn't know what he's talking about.'' Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda operative who reportedly encouraged Mr. Padilla to use a uranium device to attack the United States, claimed that the dirty bomb was "not as easy to do as they thought.'' So, the explosion never happened - so much for intent.

Should we fear the alleged bomber's bomb? It would not really have been much of a bomb - a real dud. Just the usual shrapnel, fire and body parts. I suppose that by extension, none of us should fear an unarmed or underarmed terrorist. It seems only fair that terror suspects use the "dirty bomb" defense - "the gun contained only two or three rounds, the AK-47 jammed after the fourth kill, the shoe bomb never went off, the box cutter was dull," and so forth. What a great precedent.

Should we fear the alleged bomber's legal team? Who would? Mr. Padilla, who is being held as an enemy combatant, nonetheless has legal representation. Mr. Padilla's lawyer, Donna Newman, noted that U.S. authorities "should have known that dirty bomb allegations were nonsense.'' Ms. Newman went on to state that "when they frightened everybody, what were they trying to do, if they knew better? To show the administration is on top of things? …