Let's Read The Overton Window pt. 13: Nuclear Weapons For Dummies

Last time on The Overton Window, Noah got drugged by his quasi-girlfriend and her revolutionary pals. But enough about that, lets check in with Agent Kearns and Danny Bailey, who are planning a sting operation against some all-American militiamen.

Agent Kearns had retired to the kitchenette of his double-wide mobile home to make breakfast.

"Double-wide" is one of those American phrases that I find inexplicably infuriating (the others are condo, panties, on accident, tax rebate, and using "pair" instead of "pairs of"). Now that you're all aware of this, please stop using it forever.

I assumed Kearns was going to bring Danny to some sort of FBI safehouse or something, but apparently they just spent the night at his trailer. That seems kind of unprofessional. 

“Sounds like a hoot. Hey, Stuart?”


“I don’t want to come off like a puss, but is this bomb-looking thing, like, radioactive?”

Kearns has what's described as a "full-scale model of an atomic bomb", which turns out to be more like an actual atomic bomb with an inert core.

So, a few things about this.

For starters, I'm wondering exactly what this thing looks like and how big it is, and how Danny knew at a glance what it was. Modern atomic weapons are mostly warheads meant to be mounted on missiles (and later, Kearns explains that his story to the militia guys they're meeting is that the bomb was acquired from a missing cruise missile), and are fairly large--as in, too large to fit comfortably in some guy's trailer. 

Kearns describes it as "basically a ball of lead" which makes me assume that Beck and his writers were thinking of the "physics package" in old-timey nuclear bombs, which is the spherical bit where all the nuclear kaboom actually happens (modern warheads typically have two). Except those things aren't explosive on their own; you can't just strap a piece of dynamite to it and set it off. Nuclear weapons are highly complex precision instruments that rely on really precisely engineered processes to work properly. The militia bros are almost certainly going to damage it beyond repair, and probably give themselves lethal radiation poisoning in the process (this is based on the assumption that the bomb is actually live and not inert, which is totally going to be the case).

I guess Kearns is banking on the militia chuds not knowing any of that, but if they're serious enough about this to buy a second-hand nuclear weapon, wouldn't they have someone on hand who knows how to operate one?

This would all be way more plausible if we were talking about a dirty bomb, which is just a conventional explosive with radioactive material packed around it so that the blast ejects it into the surrounding area. I guess Beck didn't consider that Earth-shattering enough for the needs of the plot, even though a large enough dirty bomb in the right place could have pretty devastating consequences (imagine if someone set one off inside the Capitol building while congress was in session--the entire government could potentially be killed by radiation poisoning).

“The core’s inert; it’s just a big ball of lead. There’s some depleted uranium under the lining, so it’ll set off a Geiger counter in case anybody checks. Here, look.”

I couldn't find a solid answer to this, but do nuclear weapons set off Geiger counters? If the outside casing was made of lead, wouldn't that block the radiation from the material inside? I assume you'd need some pretty good shielding on these things to stop the people working on them keeling over dead all the time.

Kearns explains that his cover story for how he got the nuke is based on a real-life incident (because Glenn Beck loves his ripped from the headlines plot points) about a nuclear cruise missile going missing during a training exercise.

“Of course I do. The Barksdale thing—I did a whole week of shows on that. Somebody screwed up and loaded real warheads instead of dummies onto a B-52 in North Dakota. Six nukes left the base, but only five showed up in Louisiana.”

The first part of this actually happened, but I can't find any credible references to one of the missiles not being accounted for. The claim only shows up on conspiracy websites.

“Right,” Kearns said. “Now we both know that something like that can’t just happen, not as an accident anyway.

No, it totally can. There's a book by Eric Schlosser called Command and Control about the US nuclear weapons program during the Cold War that includes tons of shit going wrong, usually due to simple human error. 

Conspiracy theorists love to attribute things to deliberate malice rather than simple stupidity. "Are we really expected to believe that highly qualified and trained military personnel just accidentally loaded live warheads onto a plane???" Yes, actually. An investigation found that staff at the air force base were habitually not following proper procedures. 

Somehow the government (or whoever is the target of the conspiracy) is always competent enough that nothing they do can be an accident or a mistake, but simultaneously so incompetent that they never manage to cover up any of their shady schemes.

It’s like the Secret Service accidentally putting the president into the wrong car and then nobody missing him until noon the next day.

I'm almost certain that something like this has happened at least once. Depending on the president in question, it might not have been an accident.

Kearns and Danny spend the rest of the chapter talking about what the exact story is for how Kearns got the bomb, and Danny is like "Wow that seems really plausible and well thought-out! it's almost like that's what actually happened and you're pulling some sort of huge ruse that I, a total fool, am completely falling for!" and Kearns is like "lol yeah, want to see my gun."

I'm honestly not sure at this point to what extent Kearns is in on what's really going on here, or if he's also being played. I'm guessing it's the former, but he also doesn't seem competent enough to be a true villain.

Next chapter continues our adventures with Kearns and Danny (HE'S AN ASSHOLE. HE'S AN INFLUENCER. TOGETHER THEY DO A BUNCH OF BULLSHIT). Now they're preparing for the nuclear meet and greet with the militia guys.

Sunday afternoon was spent with each of them going over the other’s public background.

Shouldn't that be "both of them"? Can you say "each" when there's only two people? That sounds weird to me.

If they were to appear to be old acquaintances, they couldn’t hesitate on some obvious detail that might come up in the conversation.

If pretending to be old acquaintances could cause so many problems, why are they doing it? Couldn't they just say they were introduced by the people who got the bomb to Kearns? 

Kearns had used a hacker gizmo called an orange box to fake the caller ID display the recipients would see. It would appear to them as though the call had come directly from Danny Bailey’s private number; his actual cell phone was apparently still stuck in the bowels of some evidence warehouse back in New York.

Why does it matter that the call came from Danny and not Kearns? I know they're using Danny's star power to ingratiate themselves with the militia, but couldn't Kearns have just called them up and said hey, guess who I've got standing behind me? And how would the militia guys know what Danny's private cell phone number is, anyway? Is that public knowledge?

Having Kearns use an orange box is laughable as an attempt to make the story seem high tech. Phone phreaking was already hugely out of date in 2010; someone trying to covertly contact other people for shady purposes had much more sophisticated options over the internet, which the book seems to periodically forget exists.

(Also, if you have to refer to something as a "hacker gizmo" then you're probably not knowledgeable enough to use it correctly)

I'm convinced that parts of this story were written in the 90s, because the technology level seems to jump around sporadically. The characters almost never use mobile phones, and the internet barely seems to exist; even Danny's Youtube videos could be replaced by an underground radio station or something. In fact, just last chapter he referred to doing a “week’s worth of shows” about the snafu with the cruise missiles, which doesn’t really make sense for a Youtube channel—even the most prolific creators generally don’t update every day of the week—but seems to fit a radio station perfectly.

Danny talks to some of the militia bros over the phone and is shocked to hear his own opinions twisted into open calls for violent revolution. This would actually be an effective, and quite prescient, commentary on how your views can run away from you once you put them out for mass consumption in a connected world, except we saw Danny on stage ranting about how it was time for violent revolution back at the freedom bar. The militia dudes aren't actually telling him anything he hasn't said himself.

Next chapter is (sigh) also about Kearns and Danny. This time they're driving along a lonely road in the middle of nowhere, on the way to the militia hoedown. There's a weird bit where Kearns tells Danny to stick his head out the window and look up at the stars, and then he gets possessed by Carl Sagan's ghost or something and goes on a little spiel about the majesty of the universe and about how we're all, like, star dust, man.

It’s very odd. I guess maybe it’s some sort of dig at atheism, or something? You know, since Kearns is a bad guy? If not, it’s just an odd little aside jammed into the book for no reason.

Then they get to the meeting and the chapter ends when they realize one of the men they were expecting to see isn't there. That...was kind of pointless.

The gathering got right down to business. It had been all talk up to this point, Danny told them, but now this thing had gotten real. Stuart Kearns had what they wanted, so the only question that remained was whether he’d truly found the right men for the job. There would be only one shot at this, a strike that had been years in the planning, so a lot was riding on the proper makeup of this team.

I'm confused by this idea that the strike has been "years in the planning." If the idea is that Kearns and the shadowy conspiracy he's supposedly part of (which may or may not be the same as the shadowy conspiracy he's actually part of) have been sitting on this nuclear weapon since it went missing, why would they only be hiring a crew to pull off the attack now? 

In fact, why would they hire a crew at all? Wouldn't they just do it themselves? 

Something I didn't realize until now is that Kearns isn't just handing off the nuke and letting the militia do what they want with it; they're contracting them to carry out a pre-arranged and prepared plan. Which just screams "fall guys", but apparently the militia men are all dazzled by Danny's presence and don't bother thinking any of this through.

There's a long section talking about the militia dudes that I'm going to skip, and then Kearns shows them the bomb, which still hasn't been described, probably because none of the ghost writers could work out what a cruise missile warhead converted into a ground-based bomb would actually look like.

The yield would be about on par with the Hiroshima bomb, he explained, though the pattern of destruction would be different with a ground-level explosion.

Modern nuclear warheads are way more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. Like, way more powerful. 

The device was sophisticated but easy to use, employing an idiotproof suicide detonator tied to an off-the-shelf GPS unit mounted on top of the housing. 

Wait, this is a suicide bombing? Why? They're delivering the thing in a van, there's no reason to blow yourself up along with it. 

I mean, the actual reason is because if the bombers die in the blast, they can't tell investigators that an FBI agent orchestrated the whole thing. But they aren't supposed to know that, so surely they'd need some explanation for why it's necessary to kill themselves in the attack.

And what target has been selected? Where will the dastardly villains strike their devastating blow?

the home-state office of the current U.S. Senate majority leader, the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse, 333 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada.


You've got a magical, completely untraceable nuclear weapon that's small enough to be transported in an ordinary civilian vehicle, and which requires no skill or input to detonate. You could target anything with this. Drive it up to the White House, and you'll wipe out America's entire political center. 

I guess the reason they're not doing that is because the government conspiracy is planning on swooping in to take over the country afterwards, and they couldn't do that if Washington DC was reduced to ashes. In fact, a lot of them might end up dying in the blast.

But--again--the militia guys don't know there's a conspiracy. They don't know there's a shadow government waiting to step in after their mission. They think they're just crippling the country so The People can rise up and reclaim it or whatever. Surely, Kearns would need some compelling reason for them to attack a courthouse in Las Vegas instead of the White House or downtown Manhattan.