When I was a boy, I grew up next to a Navy base. It was the Cold War.
In the 1970s, I knew the stakes of the war. I understood that a massive nuclear exchange was the nature of a conflict with the Soviets. I was properly briefed in school as to its full meaning. The 1970s was the period of the Cold War when, unlike the 1950s, everyone knew that duck-and-cover was pointless. We would all die. There was no surviving a massive nuclear exchange.
I remember thinking as a boy how lucky I was to live within a mile of a Navy base. But not because I thought I would be better protected. Not at all. I felt an inner peace living near the base because I knew it was a Soviet target. At ground zero, I would go out like a light. Without realization, I would painlessly vaporize.
I think it has been vexing for generations of the nuclear age to mature with the idea of total devastation. It’s a leap of faith to sidle global apocalypse up to patriotism, religiosity or morality. Such core identities seem dwarfed by giant mushroom clouds. For all their foibles, this impossible moral dilemma is what made sense about the nuclear freeze movement of my youth. Mutually Assured Destruction really was insane, if it were to be realized.
Of course, M.A.D. also made strategic sense, and quite probably prevented Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of Hell from materializing on Earth. But that was not a fact in my boyhood. M.A.D. could easily have gone awry, and quite nearly did.
It is easy to be at odds with modernity’s ribaldries while luxuriating in its charms. Modern life offers a knot of man-made contradictions magnified to global proportions. Modernity is not just convenient garage doors that automatically open or ten thousand copyrighted tunes shrunk into one’s shirt pocket. Accelerating hyper-novelty exacts reciprocity; it takes its revenge. Modernity gave my generation a childhood that was deeply cognizant of immaculate annihilation. That was a cultural reality that represented sheer nullity, where morality peeled down only so far until it hit a blinding, apocalyptic core. ‘Mutually assured immorality’ might explain the West’s current Achilles heel better than anything else.
Now it is thirty years hence, and the nuclear genie seems to have gotten the keys to the Lear jet.
In the past few weeks there has been a lot of buzz about an imminent nuclear attack inside of the United States. The theories range but are fairly consistent, suggesting that al Qaeda has nuclear weapons deployed within the country with sleeper operatives at the ready. Take it with a grain of salt, I suppose. Like most theories, some assembly is required.
It is true that this particular warning seems limited to the fringe press, which strains credibility. AmbivaBlog looks at the rogue nukes story with some healthy skepticism. Add to the nuclear terror story China’s recent nuke rattling, Iran’s obvious intent at becoming a nuclear power, North Korea’s games, and Pakistan’s cagey relationship with the Taliban, and clearly it appears as though we’re entering a new phase in nuclear history.
The rules of M.A.D. — all or nothing — gave us a false sense of safety during the Cold War. In an all-or-nothing world mired in a vast global political struggle, each side could attain relative normalcy. Normal life was disproportionate to the high stakes of the nuclear standoff — and we got used to it. All those layers of morality we built over that blinding apocalyptic core of immaculate annihilation could work a lot of miracles, providing that the promise of destruction was mutual, and total.
It turns out the Cold War amounted to an entire half century of having it all, creating nominal safety. The nothing part of M.A.D. — Armageddon — never came to pass. And so we did indeed create a playground of prosperity: Shopping malls, freeways, cheap global travel, and the Internet; the plethora of things, rock-n-roll, the rise of socialism and multiculturalism; baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. We got very used to that. Three generations grew up in the soil of transparent global war.
M.A.D. conditioned us to have our cake and eat it too. But today’s WMD perils are unlike the days of M.A.D. In the Cold War, we could depend on the rationality of our adversaries, the Soviets. We could mutually agree on something, heinous as it was. M.A.D. created a sense of certainty out of nucler parity. That certainty was: if it happens, everyone dies. That’s it. No debate necessary. If you were alive, it meant everything was normal. If you were dead, well…
Weapons of mass destruction in the 9/11 era no longer represent the end of everything. The threshold to this brave new terror-nuke world is far lower than the threshold to M.A.D. Parity is no longer apparent. That makes catastrophe with a small ‘c’ far more likely to happen. The forces that might unleash such destructive power appear to be gathering.
Two recent stories coming out of England illustrate that conflict is brewing:
Intelligence chiefs are warning Tony Blair that Britain faces a full-blown Islamist insurgency, sustained by thousands of young Muslim men with military training now resident in this country.
As police and the security services work to prevent another cell murdering civilians, attention is focusing on the pool of migrants to this country from the Horn of Africa and central Asia. MI5 is working to an estimate that more than 10,000 young men from these regions have had at least basic training in light weapons and military explosives.
A well-connected source said there were more than 100,000 people in Britain from ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œcompletely militarisedÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚? regions, including Somalia and its neighbours in the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan and territories bordering the country. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œEvery one of them knows how to use an AK-47,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚? said the source. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œAbout 10 per cent can strip and reassemble such a weapon blindfolded, and probably a similar proportion have some knowledge of how to use military explosives. That adds up to tens of thousands of men.”
A radical Islamic group declared yesterday it would resist all attempts by Tony Blair to ban the organisation. Officials of Hizb ut-Tahrir warned that the governmentÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s proposals would be interpreted by the Muslim community as part of an ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“anti-IslamicÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ agenda and could trigger civil unrest.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“The move is a perilous route that is harming community relations and could lead to civil unrest comparable to that which affected the black community,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ said Imran Waheed, spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir. He also rejected calls for the Muslim community to root out extremism and dismissed claims that the organisation was harbouring terrorists as ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“ludicrousÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢.
However, experts believe that Hizb ut-TahrirÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s extreme views may have helped to radicalise young British Muslims. The National Union of Students banned Hizb ut-Tahrir from campuses in 1995 after its speeches, leafleting and methods in a number of universities caused worry and distress. Leaflets called for Muslims to ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“exterminateÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ the Jewish authorities in Israel.
Donklephant seeks to define a new, broad centrism. If possible, the West needs to get its act together to face the onrush of noise that threatens to overtake us. I laud the effort. Centrism is based on moderate politics. To be effective it needs to be accepted by the majority.
The ‘majority’ is like a big spotlight. It roves a restless and dark landscape, searching for a consensus of comfort in a roiling, dangerous world. If the climate of fear and desperation is acute, the spotlight might settle on what we now see as radical. We are still fortunate to be on the outside of that world, here in the quietude of Sitzkrieg.
There are times in history when the populist spotlight illuminates politics that were previously considered extremist. If we enter a new age of mega-terror — with indigenous insurgencies or WMDs of some type — people will not feel safe, to put it mildly. If people lose faith in their government’s protection, demagogues might fill the power vacuum. A centrist majority relies on politics that accompany the safety of a reliable monopoly of power, and the wealth it creates. If that is threatened, damaged or eliminated, the spotlight might move away from the center to radical ground.
Terrorists disrupting entire cities might create a new reactionary populism, moving away from centrism. A coordinated, prolonged Islamic insurgency of 100,000 armed Islamofascists in England might radicalize the majority of Britishers. The Muslims would lose. In that context, the center would likely give in to war policies directed against foreigners and other perceived threats. Nuclear terrorism would challenge centrist moderation.
Since 9/11 we have enjoyed the seemingly endless dawn of Sitzkrieg — a period of declared emergency, but undeclared war. Our malls remain open, and gasoline flows freely. The housing market is hot. Mobilization for war is something we read about. But now there are multiple indications that terrorist nukes are either here, or coming, or in the making. Perhaps this is a long way off; perhaps it’s hearsay; perhaps it is close at hand. But if we want a meaningful definition of centrism, it should be something that can withstand the shocks of catastrophic terror. Discussing mega-terror should be on the centrist’s table, since 9/11 changed the rules. What are 9/11’s rules? That catastrophe can happen anytime, anyplace, to anyone, with no warning or apparent reason. On an unthinkable scale.
A robust political center must be a commons — a place where we can frame a future that isn’t just an amalgamation of established party lines and prejudices. It must be a place that is not simply abstracted perfection. It must work with the realities of our time, even if they’re cataclysmic.
Sitzkrieg will end. When that day comes, the Donklephant mascot might not emerge in one piece. It might be that history, and not our best efforts at principled moderation decides what happens to the center. Until that time, we should consider how to forge common ground in a world that will be vastly different than the one we live in today.