Ken Hirsch paints a rational response to nuclear terrorism, in response to a scenario by Eugene Volokh, which is different from and as scary as mine.
When I wrote the scenario below, I had two thoughts in mind: First, that the small chattering classes of the left and right keep forgetting hysteresis, the tendency for systems set in motion to overshoot, and the impact when the large, silent center finally takes a position; and second, the complexity of the real world, which resists being reduced to simple if>then formulations.
First, let me say about the scenario, that I think that it, or something like it, will remain a reasonable possibility (not a 1:5 chance, but not a 1:10,000 either) for the foreseeable future. The reality is that we live in a world in which a large number of people dislike us, dont respect us, and see their interests directly challenged by our efforts to defend ours.
Im not, as Avedon Carol suggests, painting this as a nightmarish if we dont invade Iraq scenario. On one hand, if we allow folks who hate us to get stronger, it becomes more likely. On the other, as we bring the hostility out into the open, it becomes more likely. The Iraq issue is a separate one that Ill try and address later (as soon as I figure out where I stand).
Without getting too deeply into what it itself an immense and complex topic, I believe that our interests are, in line with American character, an odd mixture of blind, shortsighted self-interest, noble humanitarianism, and naiveté. We want simultaneously to preserve our cheap oil and cheap Nikes, and to see that everyone else gets some, too.
Right now, we are, along with Europe, an island of prosperity and relative safety in an increasingly impoverished (well talk about that in a minute) and unsafe world.
This represents a massive supply of potential energy in the social and political sphere, and this reservoir of energy will drive international and domestic politics for quite some time into the future.
About impoverishment I am aware of the various studies showing that the objective level of world poverty may be declining. But impovrishment the feeling of being poor increases, as both the traditional social structures that support people break down, and as they are immersed in the mediaverse that shows them an idealized vision of the prosperous life in the West.
So lets stipulate that the issues Neal Stephenson raises may be valid, even if his outcomes are outlandish.
When it gets down to it–talking trade balances here–once we’ve brain-drained all our technology to other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here, once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel, once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would call prosperity–y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anybody else: music/movies/microcode (software)/high-speed pizza delivery.
And until that smearing happens, there are a bunch of people out there who will be seriously pissed off at us.
And as the march of technology assures that the handheld iPAQ that I use every day has more processing power than (pick your obsolete mainframe), absent a massive and probably unworkable effort, the technology of warfighting and of mass destruction similarly moves downscale and becomes more and more widely accessible to those pissed-off people.
So one of these days, one of the containers off San Pedro may very well contain someones message of destruction and hate.
Well survive it. I dont believe that anyone except possibly the Chinese will be able to threaten the U.S. with massive destruction, and they are as a state, likely to be reasonable and deterrable as were the Soviets.
But how will we react? Thats the $64 million question.
Right now we have two polar positions, occupied by relatively small and vocal groups of people. The larger majority are either confused or inattentive, with some general feelings theyd rather not be seeing dead people on TV, and theyre kind of pissed off about 9/11. Ive spent the last six months talking to almost everyone I meet about this stuff
store clerks, cab drivers, hair cutters, kids teachers, coworkers, and my decidedly unscientific poll is what has led me this conclusion.
It is my belief that both poles are relatively well-intentioned; they just have very different view of what the world looks like and as a result how best to deal with it. But I dont think either side has clearly thought their positions through, nor do I think that they have thought through the real consequences of their positions.
For the hawks, the reality is that we are talking about a return to colonialism. Theres a problem: In the old colonial days, colonies paid for themselves through often-brutal extractive practices. Im not sure how the economics work today, but Id bet that they are still uneconomical. Ideally, this would be an enlightened colonialism
and to be blunt, given a choice between Idi Amin and a colonial administrator, Ill bet the average Ugandan would take the administrator every damn day. But it will stretch us financially and morally.
For the doves, the reality is that we are talking about Fortress America, about an autarky. Unless we are willing to hold the worlds biggest potlatch and simply give our wealth away
and maybe even then, given my belief that the roots of the struggle against the West are in the struggle against modernism
we will still face implacable enemies abroad. We will need to withdraw militarily and economically from the rest of the world; maybe not totally, but substantially. Our economy is big enough to do it; our standard of living will fall, but its in a slow decline anyway, and attaining a stable sustainable level of economic activity brings other possible benefits.
I detest both ideas. Intellectually, I rebel against a colonial future; and I know in my heart that we will never be able to build walls high enough to keep the rest of the world out.
In my mind, the primary discussion we should be having as a nation is how we will address this issue in the long run.
And as a part of that discussion, we need to openly discuss and firmly establish how we will respond to the kind of scenario I paint, or Eugene Volokh paints. Because if we wait until it happens, we will be driven by the way that the silent middle jumps, and my belief is that that jump will be extreme (in either direction) and virtually impossible to control.
Fear and rage are never good mental states to make life-and-death decisions in.