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Earthdate 2003-09-03

Doomsday postponed

The Common Sense Pundit (of Melbourne, Florida) e-mailed this comment in reply to Impearls' earlier piece on Doomsday:

I read Herman Kahn's book while in high school.  Amazing that a small town library in rural Iowa would have such a book.  If I remember correctly, he had a preface or introduction explaining that it was important for nuclear armed nations to understand the implications of nuclear weapons.  Looking back, his analysis pointed to the eventual outcome — a MAD pact and an arms race.  He made a good argument that if two nations are relatively matched in weaponry, then he who fires first loses.

I am not familiar with Dyson's Weapons and Hope.  But I think we should send a copy of Herman Kahn's On Thermonuclear War to all nations developing nuclear weapons.

I also wonder that had it not been for the two bombs dropped on Japan, would the US and USSR have effectively and unwittingly created a Doomsday Machine.  What then would have happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Dyson suggests there wasn't time enough by the 60's — fortunately — for any nation to have assembled the megatonnage necessary to sterilize the earth.  Unfortunately, on the other hand, I'd say that Common Sense Pundit's point remains for the somewhat longer term.  Dyson's comments as to the relative cheapness and technological feasibility of even extreme weapons such as gigaton mines or a Doomsday device are eye opening.  It leaves one troubled that yes, the (original) cold war is over, but obviously the danger has not evaporated for the long haul.  (Let's get those Big Trees growing on comets!)

Common Sense Pundit goes on to write:

Also, given how many strategic errors Saddam has made, you see why the world must do everything possible to keep nukes out of the hands of absolute dictators surrounded by yes men.  [2003.08.31 18:47 UT.]

Absolutely!  If Saddam were to have gotten operational nukes and done something stupid with them (use your post-September 11 imagination…), America very possibly would have been forced — by public opinion if nothing else — to nuke him “good” in return.  Even so inherently gentle and civilized a being as Eugene Volokh, in a thought-provoking piece in The Volokh Conspiracy last year entitled ”THREATENING MASS NUCLEAR KILLING,” stated the case thusly:

[T]he proposal [to nuke Iraq if Saddam threatens us with nuclear blackmail] — like nuclear deterrence generally — would require us to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.  It would also require us to threaten to kill millions more, by bombing Iraqi cities.  These would be millions of Iraqi civilians slaughtered, not just as collateral damage caused by an attack on a military target, but precisely in order to kill them, with the intention of getting the Iraqis to surrender.

This is not a terribly nice thing to do.  Would we have to do it?  Yes.  Would we be justified in doing it?  I think so.  But it's the sort of justification that might justify a starving man in a lifeboat killing an innocent fellow passenger in order to eat him.

We would, I think, consider it morally excusable, but surely it's not morally wonderful.  As America keeps pointing out, there's a big difference between (1) killing civilians as an unfortunate side effect of an attack on a military target — an attack that is made as precise as possible, in order to kill as few civilians as possible — and (2) killing civilians in order to inflict damage on the other side, and to thus beat it into submission.  And the logic of nuclear deterrence (as opposed to the logic of a preemptive attack today on Iraq) is precisely #2.

Now if nuclear deterrence fully succeeds, then the moral difficulty is avoided:  The threat of killing civilians by the millions prevents the need to actually kill civilians by the millions.  But the problem is that the more humanitarian one appears, the more one appears to be concerned about the opinions of “the international community,” the more one appears to care about the views of “the Arab street,” the more one subscribes to the view that in this interconnected world we ought not try to make too many mortal enemies, the less credible the deterrent will be.

After all, to make good on the deterrent, we have to be willing to kill hundreds of thousands, or millions, of innocents.  We have to be willing to make mortal enemies of those who will understandably be upset by those deaths.

Read the whole thing.  At the time I replied to Eugene's piece with a personal e-mail (as Impearls had not yet been launched), which I'll restate here:

I too have been concerned that the deterrence value of our nuclear arsenal (which after all is merely a matter of confidence among the peoples of the world that we'd use that weaponry) has been eroding, and that if we actually needed to use those arms, after a nuclear attack on America say, we'd become mass murderers.  As you suggest, it might be understandable perhaps that we would use those arms to attack the cities of the enemy after a nuclear attack on us, but we would still be attackers of innocents in the mass — and, as you say, civilians in this case would be the primary targets, not unintended consequences.

To avoid such a moral disaster for us, I too believe preventive war before Saddam achieves nuclear status carries far less risk for the American people.  It's both physically safer for us, and morally safer for our reputation and consciences through the rest of time.

My view is that even if America were attacked with nuclear forces, we ought not to massacre the enemy's people en masse, but rather (through judicious use of nukes and much other weaponry and soldiery) invade, occupy, and root out the regime that attacked us.  Let the certainty that that will happen be the new deterrence against an attack on us with a weapon of mass destruction in the first place.

Thus the invasion and occupation — the liberation (without scare quotes) — of Iraq, in my view, was an entirely justifiable act whose overriding justification lay in forestalling the likelihood of having to take much more “vigorous” (and morally stained) action in the future.  Thank God (and the United States of America) that such a fate, a tragedy for the entire world, was avoided in the case of Iraq.  Let the deterrent value of this innovation in international relations make dictators pause before embarking on such reckless adventurism as Saddam Hussein's in the future!



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