The acronyms are WMD - weapons of mass destruction - and ABC - atomic, bacterial, and chemical. They denote the 70-year quest, right up to Geneva a week ago, to bring under control the ingenious methods we have devised to exterminate each other and ourselves.
The quest goes on even though, ironically, our more immediate nightmares are bombs called "conventional," the kind terrorists used in Beirut; the World Trade Center; Oklahoma City; Manchester, England; or, most recently, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
But terrorist bombs don't lend themselves to control by multilateral treaties, so governments work on what governments can control. The first international treaty was the Geneva Protocol of 1926, banning poison gas - a reaction to the use of mustard gas in World War I. Then along came the atomic bomb, and, in 1963, the first effort to control that with a treaty banning testing in the atmosphere. In 1972 came SALT I, the first agreement to limit strategic arms, along with a ban on development of antiballistic missiles. In 1972 President Nixon signed a treaty banning use of bacteria as weapons. And in 1979, SALT II started reducing nuclear weapons in the Soviet and American arsenals.
But with the end of the cold war, momentum for further progress appears to have been lost. A chemical weapons convention ratified by 53 states has been languishing in the United States Senate. Richard Lugar, its chief Senate proponent, told me that, although it has been reported out of the Foreign Relations Committee after satisfying chairman Jesse Helms, it may not get to the Senate floor at this session.
For a generation since the partial test ban the quest has been pursued to achieve a total ban on nuclear testing - in effect a ban on all nuclear explosions. Last Friday had been set as the deadline for action among the 61 states participating in the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. In order not to impede the negotiations, the US Senate defeated a measure renewing the president's power to order testing. But it didn't help. Agreement in Geneva foundered on the almost insurmountable obstacles of India's opposition and British, Russian, and Chinese reservations about such matters as how intrusive inspection should be. But the delegates didn't give up. A new deadline was set for the end of July.
Meanwhile, the US Senate unanimously passed a law authorizing the Pentagon and other federal agencies to help local law enforcement cope with incidents of nuclear, chemical, and biological terrorism. It is like saying that, unable to stop the arsonists, we fall back on training better firefighters.
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.