Editorial: It Won’t Be So Bad—Or Will It?
Live your life normally. Be alert, but don’t change your plans. And you don’t have to sacrifice.
Could our way of life really come to and end? Could we undergo a purification? Well, there is a long list of disturbing possibilities, some a lot more probable than others. So here goes, the game of “What if?”
(1) Terrorism (and asymmetry): The most
gruesome possibility would be a sudden catastrophic attack by Islamic extremist
terrorists, with weapons of mass destruction. Here comes the double negative:
we do not know that terrorists could not smuggle small nuclear weapons, stolen
from insecure locations, into our ports.
Now they may be very hard to detonate even if smuggled. But it may be
possible for them to make one. Or they could set off a large dirty bomb. Either
of these would cause unimaginable chaos and lead to martial law, at least for
some areas of the country. A danger is that could be repeated. Small dirty
bombs could cause economic chaos, especially with urban real property. And such
bombs might be fashioned with improperly secured materials within our own
country. Another possibility could be the high-altitude e-bomb blast, depending
on how secure our air cargo screening is. By contrast, catastrophic biological
or chemical attacks may be more difficult to mount than reported by the media.
Airplane attacks on power plants or other critical infrastructures may be much
less likely than they were before 2001, but repeated suicide conventional
attacks on soft targets (Israel-style) remain possible and impossible to
prevent. We have an enemy with unbelievable nihilistic aims and horrific
methods, an enemy that would blow up the planet with a black hole if it could.
Fortunately, the number of such extreme terrorists in sleeper cells within the
country is probably very small. The fall of
(2) Rogue states: Although the
administration has tended to play this down, some evidence suggests that
(3) Planet Earth: The most likely catastrophes are the Big One
(an 8.0 or greater earthquake on a West Coast city), although this would not
(4) Global Warming: There are two problems. One is political. The developing world—especially China and even Russia, is competing with us for the right to pollute and could cause increased war risk in the decades ahead. The other is natural. We don’t know for sure that a sudden catastrophe, like a change of salinity in the Gulf Stream leading to The Day After Tomorrow scenario, couldn’t happen. The 1993 March super-blizzard on the whole East Coast could have been a dress rehearsal for the super-storm, probably a late fall or early spring risk.
(5) Pandemics: We’re talking now about contagious infectious diseases now, like SARS in 2003, where the main risk comes from interaction between man and farm animals in poor countries. Worldwide mobility and travel is thought to extend the danger, but mobility and freedom may have given the adult populations of the modern world immunological practice and herd immunity and helped fend off a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which had the unusual exacerbation of crowded troops for WWI. The danger comes from a virus that, relative to western civilization, is really “new.” (And, I understand, all influenzas originate as “bird flus.”) A true pandemic, hopefully unlikely now, could lead to curfews and enormous economic disruption as well as loss of life. As we recently found out, our vaccine manufacturing and delivery system is unprofitable and fragile. Twenty years ago, we suddenly learned that killer sexually transmitted diseases can spread geometrically within specific populations. One cannot rule out another novel retrovirus or other slow virus with bizarre, yet unimagined, epidemiology. What if a virus caused widespread sterility?
(6) Oil Supplies: The run-up in oil prices in 2004 reflects a
number of dangers. First, obviously, the threat of major terrorist strikes on
oil fields, pipe lines, or at-sea tankers, particularly around Saudi Arabia but
even in other countries, even in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico area. Second,
there is political instability in other oil producers including Venezuela and
Nigeria. But most dangerous of all is the precarious condition of the current
royal family regime in
(7) Deficits: Our huge trade deficit and budget deficits could lead to “margin calls” from foreign investors, threatening the stability and confidence of our financial system again, early 1930s style.
(8) Demographics: The falling birthrate and size of the workforce relative to the elderly population does threaten the social security and pension system. It also threatens us with an out-of-control eldercare problem. We could see pressure to bring back filial responsibility laws, or new pressures on “yuppie”-style singles to marry and actually have children. Of course, the gay marriage debate, often seen as frivolous by conservatives, becomes relevant here.
(1) Conscription: Bush, the Republicans, and even Kerry promise no draft for now. But let the United States get into one more major war—especially with North Korea (Die Another Day)—or suffer a catastrophic homeland terrorist attack, and the draft will come back (even with “don’t ask don’t tell”). Furthermore, our shifting sense of social justice will lead to new debates about semi-mandatory national or community service, and there are less formal ways to implement such.
I’ve lived my adult life in a period where I took for granted my right to define my own course in life, even independent of family. Newer generations may be duly challenged---the ideologies (radical Islam, communism, fascism—and some forms of fundamentalist Christianity, for that matter) that oppose this kind of unsupervised freedom are many, and can come storming back. Never take freedom for granted, and be ready to pay your dues.
©Copyright 2004 by
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