One of the concerns of regulators who have to decide what goods or services will be permitted to cross national borders is the concept of dual use, the fact that many widgets and a lot of intellectual property can be used both in a variety of civilian context and in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. A chemical plant can produce insecticides or chemical weapons, especially since the molecule is often one in the same. The infamous aluminum tubes that received much attention prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 could have been intended to make rockets or centrifuges. And then there was the transfer of supercomputer technology in the late 90s to China, technology that the Chinese wished to use in the launching of satellites. As we learned from the launch of Sputnik onward, a rocket only cares about mass. Whether that mass is a warhead or a transceiver to send along television programs does not matter to the rocket.
By contrast, for gun control advocates, firearms have only one purpose — to kill — and only one moral character — evil. At least this is the case when those weapons are in private hands, though I am gratified to see that many of my fellow leftists are coming to understand that the right wing should not be the only armed element in our society, whether or not they are agents of the government. The standard doctrine of the American left, however, has been to claim — implicitly or outright — that if only we can remove guns from the country, we will live in peace.
The trouble with both of these positions is that everything is dual use. Multi-use, in fact. The saying about hammers that when this is the only tool you have, every problem looks like a nail is relevant here. A hammer can drive a nail, yes. It can also act as a paperweight. Or it can wipe out data on a hard drive. Or it can be seen as a work of art. And on and on this list can go. It can also be a weapon.
It is easy to allow cultural conventions to decide uses for us. As the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching explains, “Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.” Something may be designed for a particular purpose — gun control advocates tell us that guns are designed to kill — and this intention of the inventor or of the marketer imposes use on people who do not have opportunities in time or money to try other applications.
Apply this to nuclear explosives — I almost wrote weapons there, but the question is precisely whether such devices have any other use. At one time, enthusiasts of the nuclear age proposed employing nukes for making harbors and opening up mountains for roadbuilding. Fortunately, wiser minds recognized that this would deposit radioactive particles in the environment. And given the indiscriminate nature of a nuclear explosion, such devices are not practical in populated areas.
That would seem to be that, but in fact, even with the most energetic device that humanity has yet developed, there is a thoroughly peaceful use for nuclear explosives. In the 1950s and 60s, a group of physicists that included Stanislaw Ulam and Freeman Dyson proposed the use of nuclear bombs as propulsion for spacecraft. This sounds nuts on reading the headline, but the reality is that in concept — devices ejected from the vehicle to explode at a hundred meters distance, the energy striking a pusher plate — this would allow the rapid exploration of the solar system and even create a practical means of sending colony ships to other stars.
This, of course, appeals to me as a science fiction writer and as an enthusiast of human spaceflight, but it is also a reminder that dual use or multi-use means exactly what dual or multi mean: more than one choice. Nuclear explosives are an extreme example, but even here, we can see the principle that labeling shapes how we think about the object. We have to keep in mind the other possibilities. Nukes have no civilian application on Earth, but guns do, as do 3-D printers and encrypted communication software and many other things that advocates of control would like to characterize as single-use and restrict or ban. In a free society, it is better to judge the application rather than the potential and to work on what motivates bad acts rather than to multiply the limits on what is possible.