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 Pakistan to extremists would make a catastrophe here more likely, and there is probably little connection between the threat and the approaching Election Day. Another gruesome possibility would be blowing up an LNG (liquefied natural gas) tanker in a major port, creating an instant fireball. Still another one would be an attack on a railroad chlorine car in a densely populated area.

(2)    Rogue states: Although the administration has tended to play this down, some evidence suggests that North Korea could be capable of a very high altitude blast of a nuclear device (or even large conventional device) from a missile over northwestern US, Canada or Alaska, with enormous damage from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) over many states or provinces. North Korea now admits to having nuclear weapons. An EMP bomb could also be launched on a scud from a ship (either state-owned or terrorist-owned) offshore and could be used to disable oil producing regions as well as shut down American, Asian or European infrastructure.

(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 make the California coast range fall into the sea as in the NBC movie 10.5. The other big risk is a direct hit on New Orleans with a Category 4 or 5 hurricane (Andrew came close in 1992; see editorial on Katrina)—much of the city would be unlivable for up to a year, and we have no financial plan to deal with such catastrophes. Every few hundred years, East Coast cities can be hit with major earthquakes (and they don’t have the building codes—look at New York City’s water aqueducts), and the New Madrid, Mo. dimple will probably give again in a few hundred years.  As for volcanoes—the Yellowstone caldera blows every few hundred thousand years, but it is due. Mono Lake, Shasta, and several other Cascade volcanoes (other than Mt. St. Helens, which is relatively small) may be active every several hundred years and may be due, and some of them could cause enormous fallout and temperature drops over the country. And don’t forget that we have very poor account of asteroids and comets that may send the fire by (Deep Impact, Armageddon). We owe our existence to Jupiter and didn’t even know about little Sedna.  Another risk is a tsunami hitting either the East Coast (from an underwater earthquake in the Canary Islands 4000 miles—8 hours--away) or the West Coast. Right now there is no warning system for this possibility. The History Channel (in 2006) broadcast a report indicating that a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands and rupture and landslide of the Cumbre Vieja fault could lead to an enormous landslide and waves of up to 20 tsunami waves, some of them 50 feet high, swallowing the East Coast from Florida to the Maritime Provinces ten hours later. On March 31, 2008, Contingency Planning & Management reported on an NOAA U.S. Tsunami Warning System (that would include the Atlantic Cumbre Vieja  risk) here.

(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 Saudi Arabia—it could be replaced by a fundamentalist regime that would embargo or even destroy the Saudi oil industry out of “spite.” Then you will have gasoline rationing, for real. We just talked about it in the 1970s.*

(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 Bill Boushka, Oct. 19, 2004; all rights reserved, subject to fair use.

 

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See the op-ed pages in The Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2004: Sebastian Mallaby, “The (Probably) Right Answer to Terrorism,” and Fred Hiatt, “Doomed to Be Left in the Dark.”

 

  • *- On December 16, 2004 Osama bin Laden apparently posted an audio file on the Internet urging Al Qaeda insurgents to destroy oil facilities in the Persian Gulf region and to depose the current regime in Saudi Arabia.  He accused Americans of stealing oil from Muslim lands, and claimed that oil from these lands should sell for over $100 per barrel. The AP story, leading to links to the file, is at http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=514&e=1&u=/ap/20041216/ap_on_re_mi_ea/egypt_bin_laden_18
  • Another AP story is http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/afp/20041219/wl_afp/saudiunrestqaeda_041219120014  (Dec 19, 2004), where Al Qaeda threatens to strike Saudi oil facilities in the very near term. There were also specific threats against oil tankers in the region late last Spring.
  • See Victor Davis Hanson, “Fragility of the Good Life,” The Washington Times, July 29, 2006, p A13. “Most of us can’t grow our own food, don’t know how cars work and have no clue how electricity is generated. In short, few have the smarts to survive if the veneer of civilization were lost, as it has been from time to time in places like downtown New Orleans.” In the movie Cold Mountain the spoiled southern belle Ada says, “I can embroider but I can’t darm.”