Wednesday, March 13, 2002

NUKING MECCA: So, if Muslim terrorists incinerated New York with a nuclear weapon, what would we do? That's the question National Review's Rich Lowry pondered on The Corner last week. To nuke or not to nuke was the basic question posed to readers. He reported the answers a few posts later: some favored the "extreme" position of nuking Mecca (lots of symbolism, fewer casualties), others the "moderate" position of nuking Baghdad, Tehran, Ramallah, and Gaza City, and others the default position of conventional warfare. Five seconds and a shudder-for-what-we've-come-to later, Lowry's hypothetical slipped from my mind. But it's made a stronger impression on some people, put them into quite a tizzy, in fact. The American Prospect misquoted and mischaracterized his musings as a rant on par with Ann Coulter's demand that we invade Muslim countries, "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." The Council for Islamic Terrorist Apologists (aka Council of American Islamic Relations) screamed "hate speech." Lowry defended his remarks as sarcastic understatement. Maybe I'm just as dim as Alec Baldwin, CAIR, and the American Prospect put together, but I didn't think Lowry was being sarcastic. But that doesn't mean his slanderers are correct. (You can pretty much disbelieve anything CAIR says; the American Prospect piece is just a sloppy hatchet job trying to make a point that escapes the reader and probably the writer.) Lowry and his readers were engaging in a disturbing but necessary mental exercise: thinking the "unthinkable." By "unthinkable," I mean an act that in ordinary circumstances only a wholly depraved person would commit, like drowning her five children, raping and murdering people for kicks, or incinerating whole cities with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are so indiscriminate in effect, and long-lasting in consequence, that their use against civilian targets would be unthinkably immoral in most circumstances. But what if someone does the unthinkable to us? What if a terrorist, not a state, attacks us with nuclear weapons? This isn't a remote hypothetical -- everyone but the most suicidally naive believe that Mohamed Atta would have used a nuclear bomb instead of an airplane if he could have gotten one -- and it tests the outer limits of the Bush Doctrine. When terrorists attacked our civilians with conventional weapons, we only retaliated against the military and government of the terrorist sponsoring state. If terrorists some day attack our civilians with nuclear weapons, will we so limit our retaliation? Can we? (My tentative short answers are Yes, we would nuke, and No, we wouldn't and couldn't limit retaliation -- enemy leaders and populations might trade their armies in exchange for wiping out millions of Americans; they'd think harder about trading entire cities.) Thinking about whether to nuke Mecca or Tehran or Baghdad sounds insanely immoral and would be in ordinary circumstances. But if terrorists ever use nuclear weapons against us, we will be in anything but ordinary circumstances, and in such circumstances, refusing to retaliate in kind would at least be arguably immoral, since we would fail to deter similar attacks against millions more of Americans. Since we know our enemies are thinking the unthinkable, so must we. Letting them know that we are may be the only way to deter them.

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