TCS Daily


Space, The Final Frontier: Mankind's Hope Against Terror's Final Solution

By James Pinkerton - September 24, 2001 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: For the time being, "Pinkertonspace" will go on hiatus, as he deals with defense issues arising from the issues raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Maybe T.S. Eliot was wrong. In his 1925 poem, "The Hollow Men," Eliot prophesied that the world would end "not with a bang, but a whimper." In the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe, one would have to say that the odds once again favor "bang." The world is hurtling toward the pessimistic conclusion about human destructiveness put forth in Alfred Bester's 1956 sci-fi novel, The Stars My Destination, in which a single individual has the power to blast the planet. Science is a wonderful thing; it solves 10 times more problems than it causes. But technology confers its full benefits only if we are willing to follow its path wherever it leads.

And so just as we look back on the events of Sept. 11 and are reminded that evil exists today, so we should look ahead and see annihilation tomorrow -- unless we take dramatic action. We must strike back; we must defend ourselves. But we must also realize that the earth itself is just a place, and no place lasts forever. Yes, it's our home, but it doesn't have to be our only home. The human potential is vaster than a single planet. If and when we come to the realization that we can think and invent our way out of even the direst of threats, we will have won the greatest victory possible for hope and freedom, because we will have proven yet again that progress toward reason can stay ahead of descent into madness.

Almost certainly the United States will succeed in killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. But it's not so likely that the world will then have seen an end to terror. Indeed, evidence and intuition suggest that terrorists will find ever more violent means of attack. Time magazine reports that one recently arrested terror-suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, had possession of manuals for operating crop-dusting equipment. One can only presume that he was interested in "dusting" biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) over the American population.

Such WMD's exist now, scattered across a roiling world. But what happens when Moore's Law -- computer power doubles every 18 months -- radiates through the whole of that world? The technofuturist Ray Kurzweil has been arguing for a decade that the full impact of cyber-driven scientific and technological change has yet to be comprehended; lately, he's been predicting, "We'll see 1,000 times more technological progress in the 21st century than we saw in the 20th." Of course, it won't all be progress, at least not by civilized reckoning.

Some political and strategic leaders have been sounding the alarm. Consider the words of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on "Larry King Live" on Sept. 17: "I said several times, terrorism is spreading all over the world. Unless there is tough measures implemented by all countries in the world, we will be in a mess. This planet will not be safe." That's what he said: the planet will not be safe.

Actually, one who listened, or at least agreed, is Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. Consider this exchange at a Sept. 20 Pentagon press briefing. After a flurry of questions about specific U.S. responses to the World Trade Center attack, Rumsfeld was asked a general question: "What constitutes victory?" Rumsfeld, calm and cool as always, began by noting that U.S. military strength had convinced potential foes "not to compete with armies, navies and air forces," but rather to find "asymmetrical ways they can threaten the United States and Western countries." At the same time, the inevitable dispersion of WMD know-how added a new and scary dimension: "Proliferation enables people to get their hands on capabilities that are increasingly powerful, powerful to the point that you're not talking about thousands, you're talking about multiples of thousands of people." Yikes.

And so, Rumsfeld said, "Victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons." In other words, victory is acknowledging the looming reality of WMDs in the hands of bad people, and dealing with them appropriately.

That's a depressing thought, but Rumsfeld and the U.S. military aren't here to make us feel good; they're here to defend us. And in wartime, that's a sobering reality. What's even more sobering is the realization that throughout history, the destructive power potentially associated with each individual has risen steadily. That is, long ago, a caveman might have been able to smite a few of his fellow Cro-Magnons. Then, as technology improved, weapons "evolved" to include gunpowder, chemicals, biological agents, nuclear materials-and who knows what else is being dreamed up in computer-assisted design works. And so any single individual becomes, potentially, a more and more lethal weapon.

Meanwhile, even as defensive counter-measures improve, the physical size of the earth doesn't change. And so at some point, the mere launching of an attack -- on purpose or by accident, as Moore's Law meets Murphy's Law -- will spell doom for the human population, perhaps for the planet itself.

One can think of this as a question of two lines. One line rises steeply: that's the angle of destructive capability. The other is flat: that's the line of the physical geography of the third rock from the sun. We might call this rising line of annihilation the PyrE Curve, per Bester's The Stars My Destination. PyrE is the fictional substance, described as a "pyrophoric alloy ... a solid solution of transplutonian isotopes," a few pounds of which are capable of "releasing thermonuclear energy on the order of stellar Phoenix action." And without revealing too much of the novel -- still in print, still regarded as one of the great sci-novels of the last century -- what sets PyrE in motion is a single individual, Gully Foyle, the existential anti-hero, who repeats to himself, "death's my destination." Not a nice guy.

The last century brought us plenty of not-so-nice-guys -- Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Timothy McVeigh. And the new century's leading amoral mass murderer, at least so far, is Mohamed Atta, the apparent coordinator of the quadruple skyjacking. Does anybody doubt that he would have used any weapon available on Sept. 11? Or that bin Laden would hesitate to use any such infernal device in the future?

Looking ahead, to a future of unlimited WMD's and a fixed planet, we should think of Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is to rid the world of terror, as President Bush pledged. But Plan B should begin with the realization that evil will always exist, and that meanwhile, the PyrE Curve is gaining on us, and may overtake us, no matter how skilled and courageous we are. The duty of Americans, of all humans of good will, is to survive, to strive, and not to yield. It should also be our mission to seek. And if we seek newer worlds, safer worlds -- that is, worlds in space, that is, Plan B -- then the human race won't end with either or a bang or a whimper, but will instead continue, ever greater, ever outward.

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