Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 Disasters, Natural and Political 

December 28, 2004 
Until this week, most of us didn’t know the difference between a tidal wave and a tsunami. I didn’t, though I’d read a few articles about tsunamis. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.They were largely figures of speech, not realities we’d experienced or even witnessed on television.

I had no idea a tsunami on this stupendous scale was even possible. It reached as far as Somalia in the west and Australia in the east (though it did little damage to Australia’s coast).

One day the death toll was already estimated at 23,000; the next morning it was put at 44,000 and rising; by afternoon the figure was put around 60,000. These are the known dead, not counting those who are missing. Countless others will die of disease, despite frantic relief and rescue efforts that do credit to the human race.

In its helplessness, the mind gropes for comparisons. Other natural disasters have claimed more lives. Less flatteringly to the human race, so have our wars, even in recent memory. It’s horrifying to reflect that we deliberately prepare to inflict on each other worse calamities than the one we are now deploring. And we do it in the name of “defense” and “freedom.”

Maybe that’s the only moral to be drawn from this awesome display of nature’s amoral power: that modern man — specifically, the modern state — has learned to surpass nature in destruction. So far the tsunami’s death toll hasn’t even reached that of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

Today we all live under a threat of death at the hands of other men who are as nearly beyond our control as nature is. Is it any comfort to say that we are protected from our rulers by “democracy”? Ultimately, and often as a practical matter, we are their slaves. We must obey them. We are at their mercy. Nuclear weapons are only one of many forms of their power over us, one it may be inconvenient for them to use against us. But it’s there, the final instrument and symbol of their authority.

[Breaker quote: The modern state's tsunamis]Not that any state is likely to nuke its own subjects; we trust our own rulers not to do that! In fact, we talk as if they are “us.” We take for granted that “we” — they — would use such weapons only against the subjects of other states. This is supposed to guarantee our own freedom, no matter how much of that freedom our rulers violate. The tacit understanding is that states would inflict disasters — tsunamis, so to speak — only on each other.

“Our” state, we feel, is entitled to have this power over other states; they aren’t entitled to have it over ours. So “our” state is justified in going to war to prevent them from getting it.

This is the logic of preventive or “preemptive” war. One state, which already possesses nuclear weapons, may justify attacking another merely by claiming that the second state is seeking to acquire them. Once again, this is called “defense.”

Once the principle of “preemptive” war is accepted, there is no limit to it. We have to trust that “our” government, being run by people like ourselves, will apply it with restraint. But why should we? The principle lends itself readily to fanaticism. After all, better safe than sorry! Even if there is no real evidence that an enemy is planning to attack us, the smoking gun could turn out to be a mushroom cloud! Can “we” afford to take that chance?

So what we call “defense” amounts to developing an unlimited capacity to inflict calamities on other countries. We feel anguish when we see the results of a natural calamity like the tsunami. But having our own government arming to impose far worse suffering is just business as usual. It causes us no real anguish or even anxiety — as long as we think the potential targets are other people.

“Good” states, like our own, would use their power only against “bad” states. And how do we distinguish the good from the bad? By whether they are “democratic” — holding periodic elections. But of course “our” state must be satisfied that those elections are honest.

Even the most (apparently) well-meaning states are always taken by surprise by events they can’t control. The twenty-first century will bring political tsunamis.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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