April 12, 2006

Morality, Humanity and Civilization: "Nothing remains...but memories"

The San Francisco Chronicle is offering a ten-part series about the Great Earthquake of 1906 and its aftermath. The opening installment begins:
Samuel Dickson was 17 years old, almost a man, that April night in San Francisco 100 years ago. He and a friend had gotten standing-room tickets for the opera and heard the great Caruso sing.

The night was clear and beautiful, so after the opera they went to the top of Telegraph Hill to look at the city -- the lights of the Barbary Coast, the steeple of Old St. Mary's Church on California Street, the rounded domes of Temple Emanu-El on Sutter, the alleys of Chinatown and the distant gilded dome of City Hall.

"It's the most beautiful city in the world," his friend said.

Dickson remembered that remark all of his long life, because the next morning, April 18, 1906, would begin three surreal days of terror, flight and chaos. A killer earthquake would strike. Untold numbers of people would die. Uncontrollable fires would rage at temperatures of 2,000 degrees. At least 250,000 people would be left homeless. And everything that Dickson saw before him, the great city of San Francisco, would be destroyed.

"San Francisco is gone," Jack London wrote later. "Nothing remains of it but memories."
Nature frequently does not announce in advance her intentions to fundamentally alter the world. Men often do -- and usually such warnings are ignored.

Today, we are all Samuel Dickson, although we rarely express our gratitude for the beauties and achievements of civilization as his friend did on that innocent April night 100 years ago. Almost all of us take them for granted: they have existed throughout our lives and longer, and we assume they always will. History teaches us that this is not true, and that it has never been true -- but we choose to ignore that lesson, too. And while Dickson had no reason to think the world as he knew it would be forever changed by the next morning, we have no similar excuse. The foundations of the civilized world have been steadily eroded for some time, and now we stand on the precipice. Most of us appear to be completely unaware of what lies before us, should we make the wrong choice.

I have found it close to impossible to do much writing recently for a variety of reasons, and I have not yet completed my last series on Iran. (Earlier entries in the Iran series will be found here, with links to other parts at the beginning of this post.) One of those reasons has been an overwhelming sense of futility: I cannot believe that anything I write will make a difference in any way that matters. I think our course is set, and there is almost nothing that can change it. The people who would irrevocably change our world, perhaps for centuries to come, have made up their minds, and they will not be dissuaded. But I said almost nothing can alter our course. I have one suggestion to offer, which I will get to shortly.

Billmon has written a bleak and dispiriting essay about the likely coming attack on Iran, and the administration's proposed use of "tactical" nuclear weapons. I agree with most of what he says, which I consider to be very accurate. I have a few minor criticisms of his piece, and one correction in particular to offer. Before mentioning the correction, let us be very, very clear on a preliminary issue.

Any military attack by the United States on Iran within the foreseeable future -- even an attack using only conventional weapons -- would be profoundly immoral, and eternally unforgivable. Remember the critical facts: all experts agree that Iran is approximately five to ten years away from having a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran is fully entitled to take the actions it does at present, including the enrichment of uranium it announced yesterday. It is entitled to take those actions under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory. While we condemn Iran and maintain that its actions are "intolerable" and "unacceptable" -- even though they are entirely permissible under the relevant agreements, and are only "intolerable" because we say so without any moral, legal or strategic justification for that stance -- we carve out exceptions for a country like India, which is not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty. The position of the United States is an entirely unprincipled one, and one which devolves into incoherence.

These central facts lead to only one conclusion: an attack on Iran would represent a blatant, naked act of aggression against a country that does not threaten us. It would not be an act of self-defense, if that term has any meaning at all: there is nothing at present or in the immediate future to defend ourselves against. Of course, the same was true of Iraq. We refuse to learn any lessons at all.

So an attack on Iran, even if confined to the use of conventional weapons, would confirm beyond the point of any remaining dispute that we have abandoned all the constraints on military action that the world has accepted for some time. We would make indisputably clear that we believe we have the "right" to make war on any nation, at any time, and on the merest whim. The existence of a threat to the United States is irrelevant and unnecessary to our actions. In effect, we will have declared war on the entire world, at least by implication. No one will be able to view themselves as safe: those we consider allies today might be viewed as enemies tomorrow. All concepts of "right" and "morality" would be jettisoned forever. We will have entered a world where brute force and military superiority are all that matter. Since no other nation can view itself as safe from our wrath, we can expect the rest of the world to make plans accordingly.

When the unprovoked, aggressive and non-defensive use of nuclear weapons is added to this picture, we will have entered a world of potential global holocaust. As I discussed in detail in my Iran series, we like to tell ourselves that the United States represents the highest point of human development. (See this essay in particular, as well as this one.) Since we have the best solution to human existence, it is our right -- indeed, our obligation -- to share it with the rest of the world. At this critical juncture in history, anyone who gives a damn at all must step beyond partisanship: this perspective is not limited to the right or the left. It is a Western perspective, found in its most extreme form in the United States.

In the last entry in his collection of newspaper columns, Fear, Anger and Failure, an entry written on December 29, 2003, William Pfaff writes:
It is possible that the American presidential election in November 2004 will bring an abrupt end to this new course in global policy, and relegate the accompanying militaristic and unilateralist attitudes to the political opposition. Mr. Bush and his neo-conservatives could prove no more than an eccentric but cautionary episode, ending badly, in the history of contemporary American foreign policy.

However even if the election inflicts on George W. Bush the same second-term defeat as on his father in 1992, after another war against Iraq, the younger Bush's term in office will have realized an important and significant American transition. His policy of aggressive and unilateralist employment of power to remake world affairs was justified by the neo-conservatives in terms of the old American conviction of national exception, and by the belief that the American model of society is destined to dominate the world, by one means or another, since it is held to be the culmination of human development--the world's "sole progressive power," as one neo-conservative has said.

This conviction is commonly found on both left and right. It was during the Clinton Administration that the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, proclaimed that Americans see farther than anyone else because they "stand taller." "Globalization" was a product of the same administration, a program for opening deregulated markets worldwide to U.S. investment that was articulated by the administration as part of world society's march towards unification in democracy and market capitalism (and history's end).

It was also under President Clinton that the unprecedented Pentagon system of regional commands was established that now covers the entire world, responsible for monitoring developments in each region and preparing for possible U.S. interventions under a wide variety of scenarios involving challenges not only to U.S. interests but, as it is said, to world order.

Militarized or otherwise, American policy remains under the influence of an unacknowledged and unjustified utopianism. This is the unanalyzed background to the work of all Washington's foreign policy agencies. It permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the reason Americans can think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it.
It is this same perspective that results in our political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, and in most Americans minimizing the horror of an attack on Iran, or of our war on Iraq. The worst criticism to be offered about the catastrophe in Iraq by most members of the political establishment is that it was handled "incompetently." They are unable to say that our invasion of Iraq was immoral at the core, because they refuse to surrender the belief that we act for the "right reasons" and on behalf of history's "ultimate solution," which only we have. We may execute the plan remarkably poorly, but it can never be doubted that we had "good intentions."

The same kind of thinking will cause them to minimize the meaning of an aggressive, non-defensive use of nuclear weapons. Since many of the national Democrats have been out-hawking Bush on the question of Iran's potential nuclear capability, probably the strongest criticism they will offer will be that we should have tried diplomacy longer, and that it was not yet the time for military action. But they will not dispute that Iran cannot be "allowed" to have nuclear weapons -- because they will not dispute that it is our "right" to dictate the course of events across the entire world, even if those events do not directly threaten us. And no politician will dare to say that we will have ushered in a new Dark Ages and a time of barbarism, because that would directly call into question America's innate "goodness" and "nobility." That can never be permitted, even as nuclear clouds spread across the globe -- clouds that we first created.

This Western perspective also leads directly to a ludicrous double standard, one that much of the rest of the world sees through very easily. We denounce the deaths of innocent civilians on 9/11, as we properly should. 3,000 Americans died on that day, because of an attack that was immoral, unjustified and unforgivable. So what are to say about the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis who are now dead (at a conservative estimate), or the countless tens of thousands more who are grievously injured -- all because of an invasion and occupation that were completely unjustified, and that had absolutely nothing to do with our self-defense? But we insist on viewing the deaths and injuries that we cause as falling into a different moral category -- because we act for the "right" reasons and on behalf of history's ultimate answer. Such specious reasoning is of little consolation to those who mourn the many thousands we have killed and injured, directly or indirectly.

This brings me to the correction to Billmon's post. A couple of times, Billmon makes this point:
What I'm suggesting here is that it is probably naive to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran, even though it would be one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, short of mass genocide.
The first part of that statement is entirely correct, for the reasons Billmon gives and because of the general Western and more particularly American perspective I discuss above. But the conclusion -- "short of mass genocide" -- is probably not correct, if I am right in thinking that Billmon means to say he doesn't think the "tactical" use of nuclear weapons would involve mass genocide.

I suppose it might depend on what you mean by genocide:
George Bush didn’t exactly deny Seymour Hersh’s report in The New Yorker that the Administration is considering using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran.

Neither did Scott McClellan.

Bush called it "wild speculation," and McClellan said the United States would go ahead with "normal military contingency planning."

Those are hardly categorical denials.

So let’s look at what the human costs of dropping a tactical nuclear weapon on Iran might entail.

They are astronomical.

"The number of deaths could exceed a million, and the number of people with increased cancer risks could exceed 10 million," according to a backgrounder by the Union of Concerned Scientists from May 2005.

The National Academy of Sciences studied these earth-penetrating nuclear weapons last year. They could "kill up to a million people or more if used in heavily populated areas," concluded the report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Physicians for Social Responsibility examined the risks of a more advanced buster-bunker weapon, and it eerily tabulated the toll from an attack on the underground nuclear facility in Esfahan, Iran. "Three million people would be killed by radiation within two weeks of the explosion, and 35 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, would be exposed to increased levels of cancer-causing radiation," according to a summary of that study in the backgrounder by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Even if these estimates are off by a factor of two or three, I think we have unquestionably entered genocidal territory. We can only pray that these scientists are profoundly in error. (A much lower estimate is provided by the Oxford Research Group: up to 10,000 immediate deaths, although their report also predicts a much broader and protracted regional war to follow. That would obviously lead to many additional casualties.)

And please remember the overwhelmingly critical fact: we are talking about a threat -- if it is one at all -- that still lies five or ten years in the future. All these deaths, whatever their number, would result from an attack predicated on a potential threat that does not exist at present, or that will exist in the near future. Many Americans might still look to our "good intentions" and our "exceptionalism" to save them from identifying the savage and inhuman barbarism that the United States would then embody -- but much of the rest of the world would not be forgiving or delusional on the required scale. There can never be any kind of forgiveness, even in the smallest degree, for this kind of act.

I myself think it much more probable than Billmon appears to, that at least regional chaos would ensue very quickly, along the lines of the scenario provided in the article I excerpted here. That scenario could play out in any number of ways; all of them are incomprehensibly terrifying and awful. But even if the implied results of our attack are delayed by a year, or even by a decade, the ultimate outcome will probably not change. We may well have entered the twilight of civilization, and darkness will inevitably descend across large parts of the world. Only the specific timetable would remain to be determined. The loss of life may be on a scale that none of us can imagine.

Be very clear on one point. We may tell ourselves that we have the "right" to engage in monstrous acts on this scale because of our "exceptionalism," and the majority of Americans and our political leaders may successfully delude themselves on that point. Let us grant the fantasists their rationalization: let us say that we are that "exceptional," and that we do possess history's "ultimate solution." Even if that were true, it does not change the brute reality on the ground: if we can make that argument, others can as well. And make no mistake: they will. If we can repeatedly engage in aggressive, non-defensive war -- and if we can use nuclear weapons offensively -- other countries will make the same arguments. Self-justification is not our exclusive domain. We may want to believe that we can control events across the world: the last few years have demonstrated conclusively that we cannot control events even within Iraq. But if we continue to seek to control events on a worldwide scale in the manner we do today, we will achieve one end at some point: destruction of a kind that will make the twentieth century pale in comparison.

It is understandable that most people prefer not to grasp the full nature of the situation in which we now find ourselves. The possible end of civilization as all of us have known it, either in slow motion or on a faster schedule, is almost impossible to comprehend. It is the material of science fiction, not of real life. But whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, this is the nature of where we are today, and this is the critical historic juncture at which we stand.

There are other points about all this to be discussed, and I will try to get to them in time. But let me offer the only suggestion I have, and a possible way to stop our trance-like sleepwalking into catastrophe. For the reasons Billmon details and those discussed above, we cannot expect a spontaneous grassroots movement of any size to protest this insanity. I would offer a judgment about what that signifies about the moral character and intellectual seriousness of the American public, but I consider that unnecessary -- and you know what that judgment is in any case. And we certainly cannot expect our criminally negligent and completely unserious media to make clear what is at stake, even if it is literally the future of the world.

What we desperately need is a hero -- either an individual or a group, or some combination of both. It is entirely possible that it would require only one individual of national prominence to state the issues clearly to the American public. He or she could give a series of speeches and press conferences, preferably starting tomorrow. I still hope and would like to think that, if the issues were made unmistakably plain, enough Americans would respond. Our hero would have to explain the immorality of an attack on a nonexistent threat, and why it is unthinkable that we would use nuclear weapons, even "tactical" ones, in a non-defensive way. The issues are not that complicated. What dooms us is the current conspiracy of silence: a culture where no one dares to identify with stark clarity what is at stake, and what will result from our actions. And it must be made absolutely clear that if we were to launch yet another series of attacks on a country that does not threaten us, and if we were to use even one nuclear weapon of any kind, the mantle of "exceptionalism" would still be ours -- but it would be the kind of exceptionalism accorded to the worst monsters of history.

There is still time for Americans to hear that message. If enough of them responded -- and I think they might -- then we could have a massive march on Washington, hopefully numbering in the millions. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And even if such a demonstration or series of demonstrations did not succeed in stopping the current group of madmen in power, it would have one possibly critical additional result: it would at least tell the rest of the world that a significant number of Americans protested the madness, and were completely opposed to this unleashing of destruction. That might matter in the aftermath; it might matter a lot.

And here is a note for any politicians who might happen to read this, especially any politicians with presidential ambitions: contrary to what many people believe, the moral is also the practical. If you had the courage to undertake this battle, the resulting tide might just sweep you into the White House in 2008. You would have saved the honor and reputation of the United States, and perhaps civilization itself. That's not a bad platform to run on. I would vote and campaign for you myself, even if I violently disagreed with every other position you took.

Surely there must be one person who will take on this battle. If there isn't...well, then I guess I will have to conclude that there isn't much worth saving.

The world as we have known it may well be swept away in time, just as all the great civilizations of the past have been: "Nothing remains of it but memories."

Let us hope that it doesn't happen. And if you pray, I suggest you do so now.