Monday, March 13, 2006

The Right to Keep and Bear Nuclear Arms

While I think trying to keep a lid on the Pandora's Box of nuclear technology is a worthy goal, I'd put its odds of success at about the same as someone living forever. Sooner or later, Chance will get you, and sooner or later, someone will make something so awful that it will wipe us all out. And sooner or later, someone with malice in their heart will gain control of a nuclear weapon.

What to do, what to do?

A long time ago, someone noticed that if saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur were mixed together, it burned really well. Others through the ages varied the mixture, discovering that if a 4:1:1 mixture were used, it exploded. Very quickly, in historical terms, someone used the mixture in a weapon. That made a gun, and the mixture came to be called gunpowder.

The invention of a portable weapon that could fell an armored man on a horse changed the balance of power between government and the governed, and also among nations. This new technology radically increased the leveraged power a person could wield, whether that person be a lone assassin, a ship's commander, or a king.

The men who founded the United States believed in the enlightenment of mankind. They believed that individuals could be trusted with their own governance, and moreover that they must be so trusted. It was the right and responsibility of each individual to leverage the best technology available, the gun, and so limit the abuse of that leverage that others around them would be willing or able to perform. They reasoned that the threat of forces was meaningless unless it could be present when needed, and that meant allowing individuals to arm themselves. To them, it was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for civilization.

Allowing individuals to become part of the mechanism of order is necessary if they are to be trusted with the rights we believe they inherit from Nature (or from the Creator). There can be no right to self governance without a corresponding responsibility to come to the defense of a neighbor.

Eventually, people found other explosives, and other ways to leverage their power. Seeking a way to stop Japanese pilots from using the leverage of their airplanes to destroy ships many times their size, people created a weapon small enough to fit on a truck that could destroy a city.

I grew up in a world in which the only question was which armageddon would get us first, nuclear or Biblical. Those questions went to the back burner for a while when the Berlin Wall came down, but now we have a whole range of new threats, any one of which could figuratively or literally explode on us.

We now live in a world where the leverage a person can exert is enormous, and rapidly increasing. Nuclear bombs, jets full of people, microsubmarines, trains carrying thousands of tons steel and cars full of nasty chemical reagents, space vehicles, and the power grid are all powerful tools, especially in combination, and there are still others. The Internet and the extension of the voice network to cell and satellite phones make it possible to carry out action at a distance with these tools virtually anywhere on Earth.

This exponential increase in leverage, from being able to bring down a charging knight to being able to derail a train from a cell phone in another hemisphere, is still only a difference in magnitude. The principle remains that civilization requires individuals to have access to the same technology that others have. In particular, individuals must be able to defend themselves from tyrants, and a terrorist must believe that a swift, painful failure awaits those who abuse their leverage of technology.

Nuclear non-proliferation is a reaction to the terrifying nature of that type of weapon. The idea, of course, is to keep the technology in the hands of those responsible enough not to use it. These weapons, it is thought, pass a threshhold beyond which the principles of enlightened self-governance no longer apply. People can't be trusted with that much leverage.

However, there are many other tools available to those bent on abusing leverage. Having abandoned the historical premise that individuals have a right to leverage, we are now paying the price. We must police everyone, everywhere at once, while still trying to hold on to our own right not to be policed. Something has to give. If we continue to demand our freedoms without also demanding our responsibilites, we will eventually find ourselves with neither.

I guess I don't advocate letting everyone have nukes. But for a rogue nation or terrorist to get them is not the end of the world. Sacrificing our ideals to stop them might be.

3 comments:

David Wilson said...

I recently had this same discussion with an Israeli co-worker. He pointed out the flaw in my argument.

The premise of the right to keep and bear arms is that of responsibility and respect for life. We believe in the good of most people to respect the lives of others. We trust them with a weapon which can easily be used to kill because we believe that most will not use it for this purpose.

Our Nuclear stockpile with Russia was based on the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction. That if they attacked us, we could retalite in kind.

Neither of these arguments work when you have religous fanatics who believe that they will be rewarded in the afterlife for killing us. If they do not value this life, then there is absolutely no leverage to keep them from using their weapon in ways that are inappropriate.

So, while in principle I believe that any nation should be able to have a weapon of equality (in order for them to NOT be oppressed by another Nuclear foreign power), I start to question that belief when religion is involved because faith can destabablize what would seem to be a stable situation.

So, should Iran or North Korea or any other country have access to these weapons? I believe we are safer as a world if less people have access. There are enough in the nuclear club that no one nation could become a true bully.

Loren Heal said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

That entry was as much thinking aloud as anything else, exorising a few ideas that I am better off without.

Askinstoo said...
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