In Lord of Rings, the plot revolves around an attempt by all parties to control Sauron’s ring of power. The ring is an item unique in all the world. Whomever controls that one item rules the world.
This plot device of unique item is fairly common in literature and movies. Hitchcock called it a McGuffin. Every character has to be looking for that unique item.
It’s not just fantasy items like magic rings and swords that get that treatment. Technology does too. Most James Bond movies feature some piece of technology so unique that control of it will lead to world domination.
All this would just be of interest to students of fiction, except that for a large section of the population the gut feel for how technology actually works comes from works of fiction. Most people in the contemporary world have no direct experience with researching, creating or manufacturing actual technology. They may use it but they don’t understand how it comes to be. It is very easy for people to think of technological items like nuclear reactors or computers in the same way as they see them portrayed in the movies.
It’s very clear from reading the ongoing debate about the extent of Saddam’s WMDs that most people have absolutely no idea of the technological issues involved. Most people, even major politicians and media figures talk about WMDs as if they were McGuffins. They act as if we expected to find a giant throbbing orb in an underground base under Baghdad that had WMD written on it. They think that WMDs were discrete objects or things that could be located and controlled.
Technology doesn’t work like that.
Technology isn’t about things, it is about people and the knowledge they have. Once a person has solved a technological problem, once he has built something once, recreating it is a relatively trivial exercise. Trying to treat real-world technology like a McGuffin leads to situations were you would seize every item in a warehouse, declare the problem solved, then ride off into the sunset leaving the factory next door running at full production. Even destroying the factory would be only a temporary solution if you left the scientists, engineers and technicians that built the factory in place.
That is why everyone who claimed to be a technical expert that ever said that the U.N. inspections were “working” was lying. The inspection never could have permanently prevented Saddam from creating WMDs. The inspectors could have stripped out every piece of technology even vaguely related to WMDs and all it would have bought us was time. The original inspection regime was only intended to verify that Saddam had voluntarily stopped pursuing WMD programs. Once it became clear, in the ’94-’96 time frame, that he had no intention of stopping his WMD programs, the inspections were a dead letter.
As long a Saddam had his technological cadre it was only a matter of time before they recreated the weapons he had made in the past. Finding a cache of nerve gas shells, some containers of weaponized anthrax spores or something else would have been icing on the cake but was completely irrelevant to the long-term threat posed by Saddam’s regime.
This is just one issue where the popular conception of how technology works in the real world seriously skews a political debate.