Reader Kevin Buckley writes:
In your item on Rorty's dystopia I feel that both you and he are missing another possible consequence of a nuclear bomb exploding in a Western City.I said I didn't know if the prospect sketched by Rorty was unduly alarmist; and I don't know whether this is, either. But one interesting thing about it is that it raises certain fears - obliquely - about possible future reactions of the Western 'street'. Generally you don't hear too much about that.
Consider the following thought experiment. You are a North African merchant, living in Algiers, and one day, while you are having your mid-morning coffee, you hear a commotion outside your shop. You go to your window and see a crowd of people dancing in the street. Their mood seems celebratory but they are chanting 'Death to France' and some of them seem to be burning a flag, a French tricoleur. Wondering what the hated French have done now, you turn on the TV and tune to CNN.
On the screen is a devasted city scape, and rising above it is the ominous shape of a mushroom cloud. From the commentary you learn that the city is indeed Paris, and the blast occurred in the government district. The talk is of a 'decapitation strike'. Chirac, Rafarin and most of the government and Parliament are feared dead in the blast. You tend to follow French affairs, and you know that the French army, navy and air force are not the most up-to-date and powerful in the world. You know that they have what might be termed limited force projection. You also know that they have their Force de Frappe. Submarine, aircraft, and missile deliverable thermonuclear weapons.
Your dilemma. Do you run down to the street and join your neighbours in their celebrations, or do you grab your family and whatever valuables you can carry, and head for the hills?
To aid your deliberations, the view on the screen switches from the devastation of Paris to a scene just like the one taking place outside your window. In fact, you realise with horror, it is the scene outside your window. Indeed as you look again from your balcony you can see the CNN and Al Jazeera camera crews busily transmitting the celebration to the millions of Frenchmen and women who survived the blast.
I'm not suggesting that the French or Americans or English or even Russians would probably respond to a single atomic bomb in one of their cities with a thermonuclear retaliation (although if the cities in the example above were Grozny and Moscow I think my protagonist might be well advised to run as far and fast as he can), but if... there [were to be] repeated attacks like this, I would fear greatly for both the Muslim heartlands and the Islamic diaspora. Indeed, in the above scenario, I would not want to be a resident of some areas around the French cities.
This is why my major reason for supporting both the War on Terror and the Iraqi invasion is the whole, vexed, WMD thing. If the nihilist terrorists ever get their hands on a series of nuclear weapons, the effect on Western civilization may be more than the terrible loss of life in the blasts, more than the loss of a few rights and freedoms we have come to take for granted. It may well be the loss of civilization itself, for how could we call ourselves civilized if we reacted in this way, but how can we be sure, given the ways people have behaved towards each other throughout recorded history, that we would not.
This is our problem to deal with. We cannot kick this can down the road to our children or grandchildren, and I have no faith whatever in the ability of international diplomacy to resolve it.
There is also a letter from Gerald Lang here (scroll to the bottom) reacting to Rorty's article:
Richard Rorty suggests that if, hypothetically, a major natural disaster were to occur, with the result that thousands of people died, the survivors could expect no fundamental alteration in their country's institutional life to take place... So how, he asks, could it be justified to alter those institutions in order to avert the possibility of terrorist attacks in which thousands of people might die? This is like saying that, since there is no point in crying over spilt milk, there is no point in taking steps to avoid spilling milk.(Hat tip: Angus C)