I have a new pamphlet out on Amazon KIndle entitled the Three Conjectures for $1.99. It’s a look at whether societies can face the threat of nuclear terrorism without resorting to the same ruthlessness as their enemies. While it uses some of the material written in the original Belmont Club from 2003 to 2006, nearly half the content is entirely new. I’ve excerpted part of the new stuff after the Read More.
The motivation for turning old discussions into a pamphlet was to gather up scattered material and collect them all into a convenient publication. Aside from the fact that the pamphlet contains original material, putting things together in this way makes it easy for readers to see how the disparate essays come together in a theme.
Blog posts have turned out to be more useful at raising questions than providing answers. It turns out to be equally true of writing a pamphlet. The policymakers who presided over the birth of the nuclear age in the 1940s imagined that they were confronting a unique set of challenges in coming to terms with weapons of mass destruction. It was true in part, but not completely so. Humanity has for all its existence had to wrestle with the unavoidable necessity to cause evil in order to prevent worse. It seems as through every one of our ‘solutions’ gives birth to a new problem.
Unfortunately history has given us no way to stop the music. We are stuck on the ride to whatever end it take us. That realization can liberate us from the terrors of indecision. The pamphlet argues that we ought not be afraid to make hard, but rational decisions because the real alternative is to let things default to a more destructive outcome. What rationality consists of is a situational thing. About all that mankind has ever been able to do, even at the prodding of God Himself, is to make his best effort.
The Judge of All the Earth
If one were to search the Western canon for a clue to thinking about the unthinkable, a good place to start would be Abraham’s dialog with the three angels by the oaks of Mamre who were on their way to recon what might be thought of as the first recorded nuclear strike in history. Abraham comes out of his tent and finds three angels on a mission. He accompanies them on their trip, but the angels wonder whether Abraham can handle the truth about what they are going to embark upon.
And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him … and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way … The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
God is considering a strike on Sodom and Gomorrah. Immediately the problem of moral ambiguity, so familiar to students of deterrence, makes its appearance. In the passage from Genesis, God is worried that Abraham cannot think about the unthinkable. He had instructed Abraham in the ways of “righteousness and justice”, and marked him as the founding stone of a great people. Would Abraham understand what He was about to do? For the destruction of an entire city was at first glance contrary to everything God had taught His servant to value. And sure enough, once the angels had confirmed the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God told Abraham of His intention to destroy them, the very scruples the Almighty had inculcated in Abraham rose up to confront him. The patriarch asked how the “Judge of All the Earth” could even contemplate incinerating an entire city, visiting destruction alike upon the righteous and the wicked — and still be God.
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
The Lord’s reply in Genesis 18:26 are extraordinary. They are our first clue about to how to think about the unthinkable. For God immediately raised the issues of numbers, not moral absolutes in the calculus of whether to strike the evil cities of the plain. The discussion between Abraham and God hinged around estimates of collateral damage. If it was too great, then the Judge of All the Earth would stay His hand. But if the collateral damage were acceptable, the strike was on. Immediately the problem of what number was too big became apparent. God answered the question with a question by turning the problem over to Abraham. He bids him count the number of righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. There follows a haggling which could have foreshadowed Harry Truman’s weighing of the casualties the Atomic Bomb would cause versus the casualties that would be prevented by using it to avoid an invasion of Japan.