SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Some years ago I wrote an article for Harper’s entitled “The Radioactive Boy Scout” (which became a book of the same name) about a Detroit-area teenager who conducted remarkable experiments with radioactive materials as part of his effort to win an atomic energy merit badge from the Boy Scouts. David Hahn fantasized about building a breeder reactor to solve the nation’s energy crisis.
He never generated nuclear energy, but he did gather radioactive elements such as radium, americium, and thorium that he obtained from common consumer products such as smoke detectors and gas lanterns, and from items bought at secondhand stores, such as antique wall clocks. (In the early part of the 20th century, the clock dials were painted with radium so they would glow in the dark. That practice was halted after the people who did the painting started coming down with cancer.) In the end, the federal Environmental Protection Agency shut down Hahn’s backyard laboratory – a potting shed – and shipped the remains to Utah for burial at a low-level radioactive dumpsite.
Hahn, now 31, is back in the news. According to a story in a Michigan newspaper, Hahn is accused of “stealing smoke detectors from a common hallway where [he] was renting an apartment” and “was being held on a $5,000 bond in the Macomb County Jail after he was arraigned in 41B District Court on charges of larceny from a building.”
I don’t know the full circumstances surrounding Hahn’s arrest but I’m confident from what I know of him that he wasn’t out to harm anyone. Yet his arrest has triggered a law enforcement and media frenzy. The story linked above said police believe Hahn was gathering smoke detectors—get this— “in an effort to develop a homemade nuclear reactor.” It cited a police detective as saying, “Both our department and the FBI have been trying to monitor his movements once we learned he was back in the area.”
Hahn’s father, Ken, tells me that local police units, SWAT teams, canine squads, and the FBI searched his son’s apartment. They tore up the walls, ripped open furniture, and otherwise ransacked the place only to come up with nothing but a handful of smoke detectors, and found no dangerous levels of radiation. There were even suggestions made by some law enforcement authorities that Hahn might have links to Islamic terrorist groups. Meanwhile, some local TV news programs devoted more time to the story—and this is hard to imagine, I know—than to the collapse of the bridge in Minnesota.
All of this is oddly reminiscent of the Keystone Cops-shenanigans that surrounded Hahn’s teenage escapades. Back then, the local police stopped him and found, in the trunk of Hahn’s car, a sealed toolbox and assorted materials from his experiments.
The cops, believing that they might have an atomic bomb on their hands, towed the vehicle to their own headquarters. After realizing that this might not have been such a bright idea, they sealed off the area before bringing in a bomb squad, which determined that the materials were radioactive but that there was no bomb.
I thought the FBI had hit rock bottom in June 2006, when it arrested seven bozos in Miami and announced that it had disrupted “what may have been the early stages of a domestic terrorist plot to attack the Sears Tower.” It emerged, of course, that the agency had found no explosive materials or weapons, and that the accused had no ties to anyone actually from a terrorist group. But now it appears the FBI has reached a new low in the “case” of David Hahn.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”