Saturday, January 28, 2006

War, Terrorism and Strategic Threats - I

A recent comment elsewhere on Tacitus spurred me to write this. To quote GT, "But unless they get nukes terrorists are simply not that big a deal. They are not a strategic threat like the Nazis or the USSR."

A point worthy of thought and debate, I think, and it actually ties into a few other themes we've explored here recently, not least the war in Iraq and Kierkegaard's claim that traditional war is "over".

We'll define a "strategic" threat as an existential one, in the sense that it threatens something vital to our system or our system's entire existence. This definition requires that two conditions be met:

  1. The group or system or event must dispose of enough destructive or coercive power with respect to us that it qualifies as such a threat.

  2. It must be likely, either in a stochastic sense or, in the case of human threats, in terms of their interest in causing such coercion or destruction.

The Sun going supernova does not qualify. It meets condition 1), but is highly unlikely and so doesn't meet 2). Conventional terrorism doesn't qualify. It meets condition 2), having been a commonplace for decades (centuries, if we broaden the definition enough) but doesn't meet condition 1) insofar as a handful of people with handguns and grenades, with no further force multipliers, cannot force a group of people 280 million strong to do anything, much less kill them all. The modern U.K. does not qualify, because although it disposes of enough nuclear weaponry to meet hurdle 1), it does not seem predisposed to destroy us on the basis of ideology. (Neither do the French, though I'm sure they'd like to push us around a little and get rid of Hollywood. But I digress.) In this sense, the Third Reich and the USSR qualified because they were uniquely dangerous collections of power during their eras.

The Nazis (and Imperial Japanese), while not yet capable in the 1940s of threatening the United States in an existential way, were clearly bent on arrogating to themselves enough power (either by conventional or technological means) to do so and were having a great deal of success in that direction. They thus met condition 1) in a projective rather than immediate way. As to condition 2), both states found our way of life, relative wealth and implicit threat towards their existence intolerable, and would doubtless have wiped us of the map in an instant if they could.

The USSR, after the era of the latter two had passed, grew into a strategic threat itself. It more clearly disposed of the necessary power to seriously damage, coerce or destroy us, due to its possession of nuclear and biological armaments, and so easily met condition 1). It also found our way of life and relative wealth fairly intolerable, and our existence a threat in and of itself. Perhaps due to their lack of a racialist ideology, they would, in my estimation, rather have coerced or subverted us rather than destroyed us outright, but I have no doubt that a Soviet premier disposing of a magic "destroy the Americans" button would have pushed it if coercion didn't appear to be working. So they also met condition 2). MAD, in fact, can be seen as a way of trying to neutralize a strategic threat by increasing the pain associated with 2) in a mostly-rational threat, as opposed to the traditional way of dealing with threats, which is eliminating condition 1).

I'd argue that, as we progress in to 21st century, smaller and smaller groups become capable of meeting the definition of a strategic threat. The change isn't in condition 2), as there have always been and likely always will be people that dislike our system or feel threatened enough by its existence to want to see us gone. However, the large collections of industrial power required in the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer necessary. Due to the increasing availability of power (I mean actual energy) and technology to leverage the physical and mental abilities of a single human being, ever smaller groups of humans can cause ever larger amounts of disruption and damage.

In 1942, you needed access to an industrial plant to make a really big bomb. This meant a great deal of money to pay for expensive materials, factory time, etc. It meant paying for the time of specialists in chemistry and/or ordnance, specialists that were relatively rare and consequently expensive themselves. It meant managing to put these things together without arousing the ire of the state machinery, which tended to dispose of vast resources as compared to the individual and jealously guarded it prerogatives. You also needed access to a delivery system, which in and of itself implied cash, since big trucks, boats and particularly aircraft were difficult to find just lying around. By 1995, all you needed was a cheap Ryder Truck rental, $1000 or so of commercially (and easily) available fertilizer, a small amount of equally available Tovex & Primadet, cheap and easy to obtain diesel fuel, a rudimentary but effective grasp of the technological advance known as "shaped-charge explosives", and some volunteer labor from a friend who, thanks to other advances, has ridiculous amounts of spare time available.

By 2015, who knows? If Ray Kurzweil is correct, not much. Consider what you could do with cheap energy, on-line access to the Library of Congress and one of Charlie Stross' "cornucopia machines". One fellow who, in his madness, might have early on gotten an idea of what was going on is Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber". To quote from his rambling "manifesto", "The system is currently engaged in a desperate struggle to overcome certain problems that threaten its survival, among which the problems of human behavior are the most important. If the system succeeds in acquiring sufficient control over human behavior quickly enough, it will probably survive. Otherwise it will break down. We think the issue will most likely be resolved within the next several decades, say 40 to 100 years." Of course, our Professor -Verloc-wannabe, "hedgehog" that he is, got any number of things wrong. He does, however, seem to have gotten one big thing right, that is, that modern industrial society is running into problems concerning individual autonomy. Modern society grants the individual ever-increasing power, but that individual empowerment is itself a threat both to others and to the system as a working whole. This is why, to my mind, GT's formulation above is incorrect. Terrorists are, in a way that would have been impossible 50 or 100 years ago, a "strategic" threat.

More to come....

Bernard Guerrero

Link to original Tacitus.


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