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July 23, 2005

The Mechanics of Madness

Well, Representative Tancredo has certainly set off quite the firestorm, by suggesting that it would be a good idea to bomb Mecca and Medina in the case of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on the US. Those commenting notably include: Rusty Shackleford, Baldilocks, Zenpundit, riting on the wall, Francis Porretto, The Glittering Eye, Donald Sensing, Hugh Hewitt, and James Lileks. Good: it's a debate we need to have now, rather than in the immediate aftermath of our response to a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on the United States.

My take on it starts with my moral center: "Do what thou wilt, an harm none." This is the Wiccan Rede, the center of Wiccan morality. Essentially, what it means is that it is your right to do what you will, so long as you, in the process, cause the least harm. (Thermodynamics makes pretty clear that entropy increases, so doing no harm is simply not possible; the idea instead is to balance and minimize the harm done.)

So from this we take away a few questions about when it is possible or even necessary to take another's life. And this requires that we put values on lives. (Note: not a value on life, because all life is most definitely not equally valuable.) It is clear that the life of an innocent outweighs the life of a murderer: the murderer is actively causing harm, and so his life has a lower value than one who is not actively causing harm. It is clear that the life of a person advancing human happiness outweighs the life of a person advancing human misery. So, say, Jerry Springer's life would be valued above that of Osama bin Laden, and below that of Hernando de Soto. But such calculations are not easily made clear when the lives being worked with number in the millions: we have to simplify.

If the United States is attacked with nuclear weapons, or to a lesser extent chemical or biological weapons, the deaths and grievous injuries will be legion. Taking revenge by obliterating Mecca and Medina, or Tehran and Damascus, or anywhere else would be morally vile: murder does not pay for murder. The question has to be on how to minimize the number of deaths and injuries, and that puts the question in a very different light, because it brings up a very serious question: are the jihadis deterrable?

If they are, then threatening to obliterate Mecca and Medina in such a case, provided we were to follow through on it, would be useful. The same goes with threatening to obliterate Tehran and Damascus. If such a threat, credibly issued, prevents a nuclear attack on the United States, it is useful. However, the problem is that once a nuclear attack is initiated on the United States, we must then follow up with the nuclear attacks we pledged as collateral, or we invite further attacks. The enemy will not back down when faced with an empty threat, only a credible threat will be meaningful.

But this assumes the enemy to be deterrable. If the jihadis cannot be deterred, then even a massive response will be meaningless in preventing future attacks (unless we happen to hit all of the enemy's supply of nuclear material). If the enemy cannot be deterred, the only way to prevent the deaths of millions (assuming the enemy gets nuclear weapons) is to kill or capture the enemy first. The problem is that this is very difficult: the enemy hides easily in the midst of non-combatant Muslims (a better formulation than "moderate" Muslims, since many of the Muslims sheltering the terrorists are anything but moderate), and separating out the immediately dangerous jihadis from the less dangerous collaborators and the not at all dangerous Muslims is terribly, terribly difficult.

Any response, any strategy, has to take into account how to minimize both the number of people the enemy kills or injures, and the number of innocents we kill or injure in attempting to prevent the enemy from acting. Multiple approaches will be needed, and multiple approaches are being taken, to prevent a nuclear attack from occurring in the first place. But what if they fail?

Well, if the American people perceive the enemy as deterrable, we will likely engage in measured escalation, isolating radical Muslims (hope to catch all the jihadis in the process), overthrowing jihadi-friendly governments (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc), ignoring the sovereignty of countries like Pakistan that are unable to deal with the jihadis in their midst, and so on. A strong President could make a case for something less than genocide, even in response to a nuclear attack on America, and make it stick.

But a weak President, or a public perception that the enemy cannot be deterred and so will strike repeatedly, means a three conjectures world, and that inevitably means genocide.

Me? I hope the enemy is deterrable, or that we are lucky enough and good enough to keep the enemy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Because if we are not, the results will be appalling.

UPDATE: Francis Porretto said it better, of course:

As your Curmudgeon has already written, the secret to deterrence is discovering what the enemy values more than the damage he plans to inflict upon you, and holding that hostage to his good behavior. It's chancy, prone to miscalculation of several sorts. More, when "the enemy" is not a decision-making monolith, there's always the possibility that your threat will deter some but not all -- and that the undeterred segment will act against you despite all your disincentives. But these observations fall far short of proof that Islamic terrorists cannot be deterred, particularly since history says the opposite.

Posted by jeff at July 23, 2005 1:59 PM

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Comments

I agree with what you suggest here, Jeff, with a few provisos. First, recall that my post was not a suggestion for what should happen but what I believe will inevitably happen. Your point about a strong president is a good one. We haven't had a strong president since Reagan's first term. Before that the last one was Truman. Strong presidents are rare. Second, it is not possible to know with certainty in advance when you have used too much force only when you have not used enough. Third, the first responsibility of a government is the security of its citizens.

At the current state of technology the construction of nuclear weapons requires a state. You've got to have a shipping address. Consequently, use of nuclear weapons by terrorists are de facto proof of at least tacit state support. States that are known to support terrorism and both Iran and Syria fall into that category and would become legitimate targets.

Iran's nuclear capabilities should under no circumstances survive a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons against an American city. If Iran's nuclear development facilities can be eliminated using conventional weapons all the better. If only nuclear weapons will suffice, so be it. That they have placed many of their development facilities within major cities should not stay our hand: the sin is on their heads, not ours. However, I categorically reject revenge. I'm not that Jacksonian. Any response should have efficient tactical and strategic objectives and tailored to achieve those objectives. But not an ounce less.

Posted by: Dave Schuler [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2005 5:52 PM

It seems to me that the first attempt, given a President capable of doing this, in responding to such an attack, would be to mobilize the military fully, get a declaration of war and corresponding authority and budget to enlarge the force, and let the implicated states, as well as any others that pose a significant threat to us, know that they have the option of immediate surrender on our terms, or annihilation. These would include Iran, Syria, N. Korea, Saudi Arabia and probably Pakistan. The deal would be that we would disarm their militaries, dismantle their weapons infrastructures, and occupy them while building up democratic replacement states - nation building on a massive scale. We would offer the leaders immunity from anything except complicity in the attack that we had suffered, because otherwise they may as well take a chance on resistance.

Or, if they prefer, we could simply wipe them permanently from the face of the Earth. Twenty-four hours to decide. No second chance.

Then, you phase this in, with the worst case first, so that there is, say, 6 hours after the deadline for N. Korea before Iran. Then, the Iranians see that you are serious if N. Korea in any way balks, and it's an incentive for the less problematic states to cooperate rather than dare you to destroy a second state.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2005 7:42 PM

"It seems to me that the first attempt, given a President capable of doing this, in responding to such an attack, would be to mobilize the military fully, get a declaration of war and corresponding authority and budget to enlarge the force, and let the implicated states, as well as any others that pose a significant threat to us, know that they have the option of immediate surrender on our terms, or annihilation. These would include Iran, Syria, N. Korea, Saudi Arabia and probably Pakistan."
Since that's precisely what I thought should be done following 9/11, I'm in complete agreement.

Posted by: Dave Schuler [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2005 8:00 PM

Good post. But given that it was inspired by Tancredo's statement, I'm surprised no one has mentioned that the relatively simple act of securing our borders could go a long way towards preventing a nuclear holocaust on both sides. Even if - God forbid - terrorists do get a nuclear weapon, they will still have to smuggle it into our country. At this point, they shouldn't have much difficulty doing so, but if we actually got control of our borders and fixed our immigration services, this wouldn't necessarily be the case.

Looked at in this light, isn't Tancredo's call for securing the borders actually a moral imperative?

Posted by: GayLikeAFox at July 24, 2005 5:31 PM