A Nuclear Solution to Terrorism?

On another thread, new commenter USA wins AGAIN writes:

I’m sure this sounds crazy and maybe worse to most but I think all options should be on the table to win the war and withdraw both. Why did the US spend so much building a nuclear force willing and able to wipe out the earth and we do not even think of trying to wipe out afghanistan after they did actually attack us in a method almost on par with a nuke attack. The reason as I understand for dropping the bombs on Japan had to do with resources both in men and wealth which in the end we saved (for the invasion of the mainland and the end of war). So why is it that 60 yrs later the use of this same life saving weapon is not even considered? I say political correctness and the absolute horror that we do not have the stomache to inflict on anyone. Yet would they give us that same mercy? What kind of hell will we all have to live with if we were to go bankrupt in part due to this endless war?

Of course it is a crazy and unworkable option.  But saying it is crazy and unworkable is easy, explaining precisely why is actually more complicated.  A few thoughts:

(1) Whether or not “they” (and we’ll get back to that) would show us the same mercy is wholly beside the point.  Of course the terrorists would not show us the same mercy.  That’s what makes them, you know, evil.  I never understand the desire to adopt the morals and standards of our enemies.

(2) The moral argument is actually a key one.  A lot of people consider the use of the atomic bombs on Japan immoral.  I agree at one level.  These weapons kill combatants and non-combatants indiscriminately.  So they are inherently problematic.  Unless the target being struck is one of upmost military necessity, atomic weapons fail the proportionality test.  The defense against that argument is that Japan in World War Two was a society mobilized for total war.  Probably 70% of GDP was war related, and as a consequence two-thirds of the “non-combatants” were nonetheless part of the Japanese war machine.  That makes the atomic bombs on Japan if not an easy case to justify, at least one we can conceive of an argument for.  But the terrorism case is, of course, wholly different.  AQ on the eve of 9/11 had a few hundred core members, and perhaps a few thousand affiliates.  Less than 1/10th of one percent of the Afghan population was even loosely involved with Al Qaeda.  The Taliban government was affiliated, but that does, in my mind justify the indiscriminate targeting of Afghan civilians.  That, ultimately, in my book is a sufficient justification to take nukes off the table.

(3) But aside from ethics, there is no effective way to conceptualize a “massive retaliation” response.  Let’s say you decide that absolutely, positive have to eliminate AQ, and you decide you are willing to take the moral hit for adopting a genocidal strategy.  What then? Does that end the terrorist threat?  Of course not.  All it will do is ensure that groups arise all over the world to take AQ’s place.

(4) That said, political correctness does prevent us from even considering some options.  Let me preface by noting I think the following is a terrible idea, but let me also note that it is worth thinking through the issue.  So, crazy Tom Tancredo a few years suggested that in response to a nuclear terrorist attack against us, we should retaliate by striking Muslim holy sites.  Now, purely in theory, if you could make a credible threat to do so, it might provide some minimal amount of deterrence against some attacks.  It would likely not be wholly effective because terrorist groups composed of religious extremists not are wholly rational in the sense that they believe that God intercedes between cause and effect.  So, for them, this might seem an empty threat since surely Allah would intercede to prevent the destruction of the holy sites.  But that’s not the reason to avoid that threat.  The reason to not make this kind of threat is that whatever deterrence benefits you might get, you are certain to provoke a tremendous amount of hostility on an on-going basis. So it is actually a complicated issues, full of cross-cutting pressures.  Ultimately a bad idea, but you can’t know it is a bad idea until you walk through the logic.  And we do need to continue to think about whether it might be possible to establish a more robust deterrence posture vis-a-vis terrorist groups.

Anyway, long story short, political correctness does sometimes get in the way of an open discussion of all the options.  But just because that is the case does not mean that those options would be a good idea.  Pursuing a nuclear option against terrorism is both politically incorrect and a bad and unworkable line of strategy.

4 comments to A Nuclear Solution to Terrorism?

  • mclaren

    Admirable restraint. Most people would have remarked that using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan is a suggestion too bizarre to discuss.

    Perhaps the commenter meant to suggest that America should act more like the Roman Empire or the Mongol Empire: massive retaliation against any groups that resist, genocide as routine military policy, mass crucifixions, etc.

    The problem with that kind of savage brutality is that it tends to percolate upward. The Romans ended up ruled by Caligula, Commodus, Nero, et al. Do we really want to go that route?

  • I understand Mclaren’s position, but disagree. Suggestions such asthat of “USA Wins Again” show that our society contains elements as evil as the worst of our enemies. A valuable lesson, and worth remembering. They require a firm response, least they gain support among the American people. Rot spreads quickly.

  • Respectfully, FM, I disagree. I don’t think USA wins AGAIN’s argument was evil. He was a raising a real concern, namely that our pursuit of victory in the “war on terror” is costing us grievously. In that context, it is reasonable to at least ask if alternatives exist. The reality is that our modern restraint in waging war may strike us as moral, but this morality (a) has real costs, and (b) is largely ahistorical. Victor Davis Hanson has written on this issue as well, and while I disagree with his arguments as I do with UwA’s suggestions, I don’t think they are so beyond the Pale as to warrant dismissal without consideration. mclaren is right about the self-brutalizing effects of such practices. And yet, of course, Rome provided relative peace and prosperity for centuries for millions. The utilitarian calculus is complex.

  • We can debate if it’s evil to advocate killing tens or hundreds of thousands — people unrelaetd to 9/11 — because a dozen guys flew some planes into two buildings. But I’ll wash my hands afterwards. BTW — the people of Hamburg and Miami will be pissed when “UwA” nukes them (as the 9/11 Commission noted, those cities played a more important role than the bases in Afghanistan).

    There are only utilitarian arguments in geopolitical debates, as moral factors don’t have a common basis in human experience. But there is, IMO, a utilitarian basis for drawing a bright line around nukes, and not considering them as just another weapon to consider using whenever we’re angry. Advancing technology means nukes will become ever easier to build, and our actions will play a role in determining how often they get used.

    “is largely ahistorical”

    Nukes are ahistorical, as you well know. That is, their invention (and that of subsequent WMD) marks a bright line in human history. Blurring that line might have unpleasant effects.

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