Friday, September 6, 2013

McCain and the "marshmellow Congress": Syria can get dangerous. Is this a warning to the American people to toughen up?

Does living in a globally connected, technologically dependent world make possible civilization-ending catastrophes that have never happened?  Yes, they do, and that has a bearing on moral thinking, especially criticisms of hyperindividualism and the modern “libertarian” idea of personal responsibility.  The question comes up in international contexts when we have a crisis like Syria and both sides say that the other is crossing “the red line”.
For example, the American people as a whole have a hard time believing we should risk military action in Syria.   This came to a head in Phoenix last night at a forum held by John McCain when an audience member compared Congress to a bag of marshmellows.  The president says “the red line” has been crossed.   But now Russia is involved, and it is not completely impossible that a nuclear showdown could evolve.  Moreover, other Islamic countries are making bellicose threats, especially Iran, although right now most of the rhetoric stays in the region (involving Iraq and Israel, in different ways) rather than threatening a covert domestic US attack with cyberwarfare or a saboteur, Hitchcock-style.

The end of “life as we knew it” has happened throughout history, going back to the Biblical flood and Old Testament captivities.  Some of the exiles are so long that generations adapted to them as new normal ways of living and forgot the past.  Throughout history, invasions and conventional conquests, destroying lives of civilians, have happened.  (The Blitzkrieg started 74 years ago Sept. 1.)   Pandemics (smallpox, plague) have destroyed large percentages of continental populations and decimated indigenous peoples. In the purely financial area, repeated total collapses, wiping out the "idle rich", have always been part of history, 
Even so, the “threat” that developed after the Cold War, of MAD ("Duck and Cover"), leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, seems quite unique in the history of civilization. Through WWII, it had been believed that two large oceans largely sheltered the US from annihilation.  Now we learn we may have been saved by one reticent submarine commander as his boat approached the quarantine in 1962 (see TV blog Oct. 23, 2012).

To a technologically dependent people, there are new asymmetric threats.  The most touted right now is cyberwarfare, but potentially the most dangerous could be electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which (contrary to popular perception) does not require a nuclear warhead at 200 miles altitude (as if launched by extraterrestrials).  The other biggest threat is “natural” – solar superstorms and coronal mass ejection.  It’s only recently that FEMA has even talked publicly about this (Issues blog Aug. 29, 2013).
Some social critics, even from the libertarian world, like Charles Murray (Books blog, May 1, 2012), have been criticizing the loss of “social capital”  associated with hyperindividualism, which could make Americans or westerners even tempting to terrorists who want to “bring them low” (as in Dorgan’s novel  "Gridlock", reviewed on Books blog yesterday), or the 2009 “One Second After” by William Forstchen, Books blog July 20, 2012). 
When I started working and living on my own as an adult in the early 1970’s, one reaction I encountered in some people on the radical Left was that ordinary citizens in the professional “middle class” were among their oppressors, merely because of our insularity and indifference to them.  That was a surprising find.  It still may be around. 

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