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Mass Murder: A Dread Scenario

By January 12, 2000 No Comments

It seems to me that every generation prepares itself to face the type of dangers and the forms of death that science and military strategy have prepared for its consumption. My generation managed to tolerate the tanks and dive bombers of World War II, even as it rejoiced at being spared the peculiar horrors of the first great conflict of the century – the war to end wars. How men could line up in their trenches ready to clamber out and walk forward into concentrated machine-gun fire has always amazed me. Almost worse, consider the effects of the shelling that went on day in and day out, taking a constant toll of working parties and others who had to raise their heads above the parapet.

Going back into history, who today fancies himself in the cold steel and hot blood of a naval boarding party, or on land, forming square to receive cavalry? Yet I suppose that generation got used to the idea of driving a cutlass or a lance through enemy flesh, aware that it could be your turn next. Interestingly enough, the recent battles that seem to have held special dread were those that most resembled World War I – Italy and Stalingrad, for instance, and in the Cold War, Korea.

All this may seem academic and, if we are lucky, so it may remain. However, there is a threat hanging over us that deserves careful and honest consideration: if weapons of mass destruction are used, could any mental preparation possibly enable us to endure?

For decades, we all lived under the shadow of major nuclear war. In a fatalistic manner, we were prepared for the worst. But this state of mind was alleviated by confidence that mutual deterrence would probably continue to work, so we might never be put to the test and, were it to fail, it would be curtains anyway. Now we are facing a realistic threat of nuclear, chemical and biological attack. Although the latter two dangers are very serious, it is on the nuclear problem that I wish to concentrate.

Hardly a month goes past without a new twist. Four days before Christmas, the National Post published Deroy Murdock’s article about 48 suitcase nukes that are unaccounted for by their country of origin, Russia. There are reports of Libya obtaining medium-range missiles, and North Korea might have both missiles and nukes. The list goes on. Why should these relatively weak arsenals (whether in national or terrorist hands) pose a threat that exceeds the thermonuclear might of the USA and the former Soviet Union?

My answer is simple: whereas the massive stockpiles were there to prevent nuclear war, the little ones are there to be used.

There is a golden rule in bargaining: never issue a threat unless you are willing to carry it out. One foreseeable use for terroristic nuclear capability, whether state-sponsored or independent, is blackmail. The sponsor may imagine that the threat alone will secure his demand, and sometimes it might. But sooner or later a victim will hold out or be incapable of meeting the demands. Another possible use is revenge, which defies logical responses. Either way, the world may witness a disaster equal to the bombs dropped in Japan in 1945, that left two cities as blistering ruins. Indeed, that attack illustrated in the cruelest imaginable way the penalties of having no deterrent capability against a nuclear opponent.

However, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings did not spread terror and despair right across the Japanese nation. Possibly, this was because the full measure of the disaster was concealed, and because to some degree the atom bombings seemed at the time to be merely an extension of the massive conventional air attacks.

Although it ought to be a matter of urgent policy research, the development of asymmetrical deterrence is unlikely to provide answers to every threat. Confronted with the sudden realization that one’s capital city is about to be vaporized and there is nothing to be done to stop it, populations may not behave with the cool detachment that any evacuation plan would require. If the weapon went off, probably at ground level, the consequences might be complete traumatizing, probably extending well beyond national boundaries.

Who would ever again want to live in a large city, when every such complex had overnight become a target, at least in the public mind? Understandably, there would have been no effective mental preparation to withstand the horrors of this type of war, which might mark the beginning of the end of civilization as we have known it.

Although the American search for a national missile intercept system may provide some useful defence against missile attack, the greater threat may be introduced in a diplomatic bag or terrorist’s sport utility vehicle.

Crisis management will be stretched past breaking point. Some new forms of deterrence are needed. It is the challenge of our age.