In barbaric times gods did barbaric things and humans did barbaric things in fear or honour of them. In times supposedly less barbaric, multitudes were tortured and killed in the name of Papal Rome's god.

We think our sorts of societies have left behind god-driven barbarism and vengefulness. Part of the discomfort many feel with Maori spiritual beliefs is that they speak to us of a dark age of untamed gods. Reason and science were supposed to have banished such mythologies.

But reason and science have proved flimsy defences. Barbarians still kill multitudes - and in our sorts of societies - in the name of a perverted version of the Muslims' god.

That these killings also include many Muslims is no concern to these new barbarians: you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, as Marxists used to say.

The tough test for our sorts of societies is how to keep respect for individualism and difference alive.

The Americans, terrorised by September 11, developed a doctrine of pre-emptive strike and applied it to Iraq. John Howard of Australia has adopted the doctrine. You might call the French state's bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 an earlier example.

Bush's pre-emptive strike neither uncovered terror links nor stopped the bombing. He has since justified the Iraq adventure as liberating a people from a dictator's oppression. But he has not made this a doctrine: no strike force is being readied to liberate the oppressed of Zimbabwe.

There is a doctrine at the United Nations (as this column has argued since before September 11): that each government has a responsibility to protect its people and, in the event of egregious failure, other governments are duty-bound to assume the responsibility.

But doctrines which veer too close to a foundation in ethics discomfort large states. They prefer realpolitik grounded in power.

This doesn't stop terror bombers, as Spain, Australia (in Bali) and now Britain have found. But it does put small states on the hotplate.

In the case of our small country and the United States, the terms are blunt. Sending troops to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf is not enough. A pure free trade line in the World Trade Organisation is not enough. We must change the anti-nuclear law.

Bush's departing Ambassador Charles Swindells restated that last week - wrapped in sucrose language but with the meaning clear. Alan Hawke, Australian High Commissioner, will likely deliver similar parting "friendly thoughts" next month.

The problem is most politicians believe the anti-nuclear law is a third-rail issue - touch it and you are politically dead. Helen Clark was quick to seize on an injudicious comment by Don Brash last week to score a desperately needed goal in the pre-election game.

But is it quite the third-rail issue that Clark - and obviously Brash, twisting on her nuclear skewer - think it is?

Probably in the case of the totality of the law, that is, weapons as well as ship-engines. (Unless there is a sudden large threat akin to that of World War II.) But narrow the focus to the engines. If National was believed to be planning to repeal only the nuclear-powered-vessels part of the law, how many Labour-side-leaners would be deterred on that issue alone from crossing the line to National and how many current National-side-leaners would switch across the divide?

Probably not a lot. Far more important deciders for potential swingers are the size and role of the state - taxes and spending patterns - the Government's managerial (in)competence and political correctness/Treaty of Waitangi.

Nevertheless, National is taking no chances pre-election because it can't rely on voters separating engines from bombs in the heat of the campaign.

But its own high-powered taskforce last year urged repeal of the nuclear-powered-vessels section.

It concluded from talks in Washington that that section, not the anti-weapons section, was "at the heart of our problems with the US" and repealing it "does not mean we need to accept nuclear-powered ship visits".

That is, the public policy objective can be met and the standoff between mates Swindells bemoaned unjammed.

Sources since have added a proviso that the Government doesn't trumpet that it still won't accept nuclear-powered ships. Brash can't sort that out until in office.

But he has also said he will take a referendum to the people if he finds - as he surely will (don't mention the free trade agreement!) - that it is in the country's interest to adjust the law.

Would such a referendum pass (assuming support parties don't block it)? With a strong lead, yes. (God-driven bombers might be a prod, too.) Is the pirouetting pre-election Brash of the past week capable of such strong leadership? Definitely, once he is in power - though it might come later than lunchtime.