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Martin Schram
Martin Schram
Avoiding Armageddon Web Site
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'Avoiding Armageddon'
With Martin Schram
Author, Journalist

Tuesday, March 25, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

The U.S. has mounted an invasion of Iraq to, in the words of President Bush, disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The new documentary, "Avoiding Armageddon" examines the threat of terrorism compounded by WMD -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Producers traveled to some of the most dangerous places in the world, such as Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and throughout the Middle East to gather material for the film. The series is hosted by journalist Walter Cronkite, and each episode concludes with a discussion on the provocative issues raised, moderated by veteran journalist Frank Sesno.

Journalist Martin Schram, author of "Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future. Our Choice," was online Tuesday, March 25 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the upcoming series and the threat of WMD.

Schram has been a Washington journalist, editor, and author for more than three decades. The author of four books, he writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Scripps Howard News Service, which is distributed to more than 400 newspapers.

"Avoiding Armageddon," the inaugural production from Ted Turner Documentaries, airs on PBS Monday-Thursday, April 14-17, 2003, 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Arlington, Va.: What do you believe is the ultimate goal of these terrorist organizations?

Martin Schram: Of course, the various Muslim-based terrorist groups are far from monolithic. But I assume that you are talking primarily about al Qaeda. Islamic militants such as al Qaeda want to see a Middle East that is populated solely by non-secular states that are ruled by Islamic law, or sharia. In fact, Osama bin Laden's philosopher-in-chief, Ayman Mohammed al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian militant, began by vigorously opposing the secular government of Egypt. Clearly, they oppose Israel and oppose the United States for supporting Israel's right to exist in peace. For that matter, they also oppose all governments that deal with, or provide bases, over-flight rights or any other support for the United States. Ultimately, they apparently want all nations everywhere to be ruled by a strict authoritarian Islamic law. And they are willing to kill large numbers of innocent civilians to shake the faith and foundations of all secular governments, especially the western democracies.


Madison, Wis.: Why is the U.S. administration so certain that Iraq is still stockpiling chemical and biological weapons? Is it possible that they destroyed them? Would there be evidence that they were destroyed or is it just the word of the Iraq regime? Why do you think nothing substantial was found during the inspections? Do you think lengthening the inspections would have turned something up? (Sorry, I guess that's a lot of questions.)

Martin Schram: If Saddam's regime had destroyed its chemical and biological weapons that were once catalogued and listed by the UN inspectors, all he had to do was provide evidence that they had been destroyed. In "Avoiding Armageddon," I quote at great length a captured Iraqi intelligence officer who witnessed his nation's chemical gas attack on Halabja from his post on a mountaintop next to that Kurdish city. He says that he was part of a detail that was later assigned to bury some sort of weapons of mass destruction in the desert. He cannot be specific as to what sort of weapons they were; that is not his expertise. But he says he is sure that they were weapons of mass destruction, because this was indeed an Iraqi top-secret mission. He spoke from a Kurdish jail, where he has been since he was captured on a spy mission a few years ago. While it is impossible to independently verify his statements, I have verified from other Iraqi government defectors that the stories he told were consistent with the facts as they knew them.


Washington, D.C.: I have enjoyed your previous books and columns about the media. What do you think the media needs to do differently to heighten public awareness about the issues you have written about in your latest book?

Martin Schram: thanks. The main thing that my colleagues in the news media need to do is to be willing to focus upon the major issues that are not at the moment big news because they are not being talked about by government officials. To do that, we need to press to find out what the real major threats are that we face -- what is being done to reduce or eliminate that threat now, and what the experts say needs to be done that is not being done.

We in the news media have gotten very comfortable in letting the world officials decide what should be the news of the day. We report what they say. We need instead to be uncovering the real threats we face -- that perhaps government officials do not discuss because they have failed to take the steps theatre needed to assure that we are really being adequately safeguarded.


Baltimore, Md.: Was it difficult to gain access to some of the world leaders you interviewed -- Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, to name a few?

Martin Schram: Actually, it was not difficult to gain access to Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev. Probably because they are world leaders who, once they heard about the nature of our book-and PBS series, knew they had a message they wanted to communicate. But we never could get Boris Yeltsin to agree to be interviewed; perhaps because he did not want to be asked about secret Russian bioweapons efforts that may have existed in his regime, but were never admitted.

As always, it was most difficult to get access to officials and former officials who felt they had acted (or failed to act) in ways that has left our world less safe (see also: more dangerous).


New York, N.Y.: If one vial of Anthrax or Resin or VX can cause so much human and environmental damage, how can we possibly police these things? It doesn't seem like more policing or security measures or threats can stop one person willing to use these deadly weapons. That leads me to wonder, is there another solution -- a way to instill more reason and humanity into this world? Tall order.

By the way, I commend PBS for showing this program and The Washington Post for the online chat. It's a good time to "talk" about these things. I also like the Program Club idea on the PBS Web site. It's the first I've heard of it.

Martin Schram: One of the bold things we have done in "Avoiding Armageddon" -- both in the book and the PBS series -- is to discuss the traditional nuclear, chemical and biological security problems and then move on to other problems that are at the heart of so much world unrest. We look at failed states that have become places where terrorist movements are born and thrive. We also look at the root causes that may lead to the disenfranchisement, hopelessness and despair that causes the tens of millions of people to feel they would rather harbor terrorists and shield them from discovery rather than turn them in. And finally, we look at what the world's developed nations can do to begin to reverse these conditions: from a global Marshall Plan to small micro-credit and other programs.


Lyme, Conn.: Under what conditions do you believe Saddam Hussein would use his weapons of mass destruction? Is he more apt to hold out until he thinks he is militarily cornered? Or do you think he might use them to gain advantage during war, even though their use would confirm he was lying about having them?

Martin Schram: I believe Saddam will use -- or try to use -- his weapons of mass destruction when he feels cornered, trapped, about to be defeated, caught or most likely, killed. I believe he will try to drop chemical weapons on Israel as his inhuman parting shot. We must remember that whether or not people believed this was the right war or the right time to fight this war, there can be no doubt that Saddam is as bad and as brutal as was his hero, Joseph Stalin.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: There are six billion people and growing on an earth that's not getting any larger. Water resources are declining and the average temperature of the oceans is increasing. Though the sun provides life support for earthbound creatures, it's bounty is not inexhaustible. Given that mankind can't rein in its breeding mania, how do you expect any other outcome in the future than misery, anger, disease, and death -- on a worldwide scale? I'm not a Malthusian necessarily but I am a professional engineer. I can do the numbers and they're not good. Thanks much.

Martin Schram: I'm tempted to say that we should wear lighter clothes, more condoms and eat less-salty foods. (But I know your question is both serious and vital so I won't say that.) I guess I am left with something that may sound trite but I believe is fundamental: As world citizens, we need to do all that we can to address all of the problems you cite. We can't fix them all; we probably can't fix any one of them 100 percent. But we can't afford to do any thing less that care deeply and try our best. This may require that some governments are going to have to forego the luxury of unilaterally turning away from world efforts such as the Kyoto treaty just because it is not perfect.


Washington, D.C.: How secure are Russian WMD stockpiles?

Martin Schram: Sad top say, the WMD stockpiles of the former Soviet Union remain dangerously unsecured. One of the major points that "Avoiding Armageddon" illustrates is the perilous lack of security that continues at so many sites. But the good news is that we do have solutions: The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction ACt has made an excellent start at securing these vulnerable stockpiles and at destroying and decommissioning many weapons.

Here's something chilling to consider: Since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials. Sixteen of the cases involved thefts of weapons grade material. Luckily, all of this stolen weapons grade material was recovered. But shockingly, the records back at the facilities from which the nuclear material was stolen failed to show that any of the material was even missing! That's why we have to understand that America's homeland security cannot begin at our shores; it must begin at the sources of WMDs, the sites in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere where terrorists can too easily obtain weapons materials.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm a big fan of public television but four nights of "Armageddon" seems rather intense. Do you think this program will be able to sustain the audience's interest?

Martin Schram: I don't know of a more pressing threat we face today, nor a more pressing issue that ought to concern all people. Those who don't wish to see all four shows can either tape them and watch them, say, once a week. Or they can buy the book. (I of course advocate all of the above.) Finally, if four nights of "Avoiding Armageddon" seems too intense, there are always those reality-based shows like "Fear Factor" where beautiful people eat ugly insects and worms in order to entertain the masses. i suggest watching the series, reading the book, then getting involved in a grass-roots worldwide movement to lead the world's leaders to do what they need to do. Others, however, may prefer to watch their fellow humans eat worms and bugs.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I vacillate between wanting to watch/hear all of the news and feeling overwhelmed by news and needing to listen to loud music to "cleanse" my mind. How was it for you while you were researching and writing the book? Did you at any time feel like the problems of the world were too big to shoulder and need to turn away from focusing on the book at times?

Martin Schram: That's a good question. All of us react differently to the common truth that these are overwhelming issues. I found that the more I dug into them, the more I felt that the issues were so troubling that I dared not turn away from them. I began to feel as though it is the obligation of us all to care enough to do all we can, and nothing less. That probably helped me stay with the effort, rather than seeking to cleanse my mind on lighter things.


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion do we need to be focusing on North Korea much more than it appears that we are? Is North Korea behind Iraq in building "the bomb" or dangerously close to being on parr with weapons of mass destruction?

Martin Schram: North Korea represents a great threat to us all -- one that is not being adequately addressed by world leaders. Why is North Korea, an impoverished nation, building a largescale nuclear program that it clearly cannot afford? There are only two answers -- both unpalatable., One is to use the effort to blackmail the West into showering North Korea with aid in the form of food and development (I favor the aid, but not at the point of nuclear blackmail.) the other is to see nuclear weapons to agressive and unstable rogue regimes or terrorists. North Korea may prove to be the greatest threat we face today.


Alexandria, Va.: You mention a "grassroots" effort to influence world leaders on such issues. Is there one in particular? Is this discussed in the book or the series? I'd like to get involved as I think this is the greatest threat we face, but I don't know how.

Martin Schram: There is no single worldwide movement now that I know of that is devoted to convincing all world leaders to secure all weapons of mass destruction. In the book I note the rapid and powerful influence of the Women's Strike for Peace and how it once helped bring about a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. World leaders from Gorbachev to Carter to theirs have talked about the need for world citizens to get involved and lead their leaders into doing what they know is right but for one reason or another have not felt motivated to vigorously pursue. Perhaps my book and your interest can help such a movement get started.


Seattle, Wash.: In combatting terrorism, how important do you think that it is to address the attitudes of people in the Middle East towards the United States? Sometimes the war on terrorism reminds me of the war on drugs where there is both a supply and demand issue. We actively seek to disrupt the SUPPLY of weapons of mass destruction without spending near as much time addressing attitudes of people that DEMAND such actions. I'd like to hear your comments. Thanks for the chat.

Martin Schram: I completely agree with the statement implicit (explicit,really) in your question. We must address both the SUPPLY (the unsecured and poorly secured WMDs) and the DEMAND (the desperation of billions in the world. One of the most interesting things I discovered in researching this book is that just in recent months there has been an evolution that has occurred among some of the experts I most respect in this field. A year ago, experts who only focused upon the weapons and materials have begun to focus their significant intellectual candlepower upon the despair of people throughout the world that leads them to support even those who seek WMDs to use against innocent masses of people in developed nations they have never even seen.


Chevy Chase, Md.: If one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, how can we objectively define terrorism? How is terrorism different from other forms of armed conflict?

Martin Schram: Experts debate this. And on one level the debate is both rigorous and yet unending. But some things are clear. A certain evolution of terrorism has occurred: Once such efforts were mainly focused upon governments or military officials -- to gain control of a land or state; then they were targeted at civilians to get attention of authorities -- again to gain control of a land or state. Now they are aimed at killing masses -- and they seek to acquire WMDs do achieve this goal; and they do this even though they are not really seeking to rule a piece of land or conquer one nation. So, as has been said of other more mundane pursuits, when it comes to terrorism, sometimes we know it when we see it. For example, we saw it on 9/11/01.


Atlanta, Ga.: Hind sight is 20/20. How can we prevent mistakes from happening again in regards to Iraq? Do you think things are much different this time around since there is no longer a Soviet Union?

Martin Schram: On the one hand there is no Soviet Union. On the other, there is no coalition that is moving with the publicly stated determination as in Gulf War I. So that part is a mixed bag. Also, even though Saddam is unpopular within much of the Muslim world, the United States does not enjoy open backing of many Muslim-majority nations that backed it 12 years ago. So it is a mixed bag.

The way the US can prevent the mistakes made after the first Gulf war is to remove Saddam and his regime. But remaking Iraq will be expensive. And the French have made clear they don't feel the need to help rebuild; but no doubt they will feel the need to deal for oil from the new Iraq.


Alexandria, Va.: Two part question - do you think al Qaeda was surprised at the forceful reaction to the 9/11 attacks (i.e. toppling the Taliban regime so quickly) and secondly, is it possible that al Qaeda is not even close to possessing WMD and that is why they chose the methods used on 9/11? Thanks.

Martin Schram: I think al Qaeda was stunned by its 9/11 success; my guess is that Osama & Company didn't have any idea that their planes would topple the twin towers. And surely they underestimated the anger and determination of the US response. They no doubt saw that the US cut and ran in Somalia and had just a short perfunctory response to the USS Cole attack.

I figure if Osama had a WMD, we'd have felt its effects by now.


Arlington, Va.: Is it overly cynical to wonder if an escalation of terrorism in the world is inevitable?

After all, a lot of technological advances predicted in the coming decades, particularly biotechnology and nanotechnology, have the potential to provide cheap tools for killing large numbers of people.

Is the nihilistic loner with an axe to grind and nothing to lose the enemy of the future?

Martin Schram: I fear you are right. Especially, the prospect of weaponized generations of new genetically-perfected bioweapons represent a threat for which, sadly, there is no sure answer.


Washington, D.C. : We've fingered Iraq and, of course, al Qaeda as countries/organizations who are likely to use chemical and biological weapons in terrorist attacks. What other countries/organizations should we be most worried about? What are the most likely weapons we would likely see used first?

Martin Schram: Aum Shinrikyo in Japan tried to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons over the years. (Tokyo has cracked down on it after the subway attack.) So it is not just Islamics from the Mideast that we must fear. But until the Palestinians are ready to crack down on all the terrorists in their territories, and until Iran and Syria and others are willing to do the same, we can all fear the most militant of Islamist groups. But then too,Americans cannot forget that Tim McVeigh did not wear Arab garb, and he was perfectly willing to kill innocent adults and children because of his warped hatred of the US government.


Demarest, N.J.: Two questions, if you don't mind:
(1) Our initial reason for invading Iraq was to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. So far none have been found. Imagine for a moment that none are found over the next several months. Do you have any comments on this that might help an American sitting at home in front of his Internet connection trying to figure out if we have just gone to war over nothing?

(2) If WMD programs, especially chemical and biological, are easy to hide, how can we ever stop their proliferation? Does moral suasion work? If not, must we be prepared to invade any country we suspect of becoming hostile to us and of having a WMD program, even if we have no hard evidence that such a program exists?

Martin Schram: You've asked two excellent questions. But the best answer I can give to your first question is to restate your second question. Because it is so easy to hide/bury those weapons in the desert, it may be that we'll never find them but that they did exist. Saddam after all could have shown the records of what he destroyed; but he never did. The UN inspectors were really more like auditors; if Saddam showed them the records, they could check them off. I wish we'd pushed more aggressively or waited more patiently to bring around a more global coalition. But I don't for one minute believe Saddam had no WMDs. Surely he had them and surely he is among the worst of dictators.

Finally: World leaders are just beginning to realize that there is no such thing any more as national security. There can only be world security. Each can try to secure its own borders; but until all nations work to secure all weapons at the source there can be no real security. That is why it makes little sense now for the US to be spending so much on a missile defense (which is ok but not our greatest security need) and just a fraction of it on Nunn-Lugar measures to secure weapons at their source -- which is our greatest security effort.


Aliso Viejo, Calif.: Why isn't the media showing more on the fact that we found and already new that Iraq had chemical weapons? No this guy from Iraq is speaking about how Americans are the bad and it is our fault that the people don't have food. This is the same person that is going to launch chemical warfare within the next few hours on our troops and will fall on his 5 million people. So this man doesn't care about his people, this is all propaganda, he could care less, just talks us down but Saddam told his men to launch chemical, which will murder 5 million people. How do you justify that or make sense of it?

Martin Schram: I guess your question is getting at the fact that Saddam once had chemical weapons and the world knew it. And Saddam has never shown that he has destroyed all that he had. To that I agree with you. My media colleagues should have focused upon the fact that Saddam failed to prove he had destroyed what we knew he once had. But then again, we got mixed messages on that from the Bush administration and the UN -- as once again, world leaders muddled their message.


Red Wing, Minn.: Can we put a damper on terrorism by declaring war on Iran and Saudi Arabia after we finish the Iraq campaign?

Martin Schram: No.

To do that would guarantee that the world would line up to oppose the USA en masse. It would be the worst possible outcome and the end of the American era.

But don't get me wrong: I've been very critical of the regimes ruling the Saudis and Iran over the years.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that the biggest terrorism threats arise from groups of people who feel they have nothing to lose. These people feel that they have no dignity or worth and no control over their own lives. I also feel that fundamentalism worldwide whether it is Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish polarizes people into an us versus them mentality.

I would be interested to know how these situations could be defused or reversed, and what actions we can take to help this process.

Martin Schram: That's exactly what I've been talking about in describing the efforts that the world's developed nations must pursue: from a global Marshall Plan to micro-credit and education reform efforts, to global health efforts. All aimed at showing the rest of the world it has not been forgotten and is not being bypassed by globalization.


Wheaton, Md.: Since Yasser Arafat is friendly with both Iran and Iraq, shouldn't he be considered part of the "axis of evil?" Shouldn't we be encouraging the our Israeli allies to destroy, instead of make peace, with terrorists like Arafat?

Martin Schram: Yassir Arafat is evil with no axis.


Arlington, Va.: I can't tell whether the Administration is trying to avoid Armageddon, or begin it. What do you think?

Martin Schram: I'd pick Door Number One -- Avoid Armageddon. And surely you agree. This administration has many faults and some miscast goals, but ARmageddon is not one of them.


Martin Schram: Thanks very much for your sharp questions. Perhaps we can do this again sometime soon.
-- Martin Schram


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