TCS Daily


Nukes and the New Monasticism

By James Pinkerton - May 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the second of two parts.

Last week we noted that the "pebbles" of nuclear proliferation are starting to slide into an atomic avalanche. Thus, for this week: a guide for the plutonium-perplexed -- what to do and, more to the point, where to go.

But first, a late-breaking story interrupts us: Wednesday's emergency evacuation of official Washington -- the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court -- proved to be based on a false alarm. But the prompt emergency action illustrates the take-no-chances jitteriness of Homeland Securitizers. And yet every jitter is an accelerator: people want to get out. Which takes us, not to get too far ahead of things, to the ultimate point of this two-part article: that it's danger itself, not just nuclear weaponry, that is proliferating beyond any possible control. So the social and geographical patterns of civilization are going to change, perhaps in a way not seen for 1500 years. People are going to disperse -- in part because they can, because of technology; in part because they want to, because they want to get back to nature; and in part because they must, because they feel the threat from terror, terrorists, and terrible weapons.

Now back to our main story.

Even as the UN gathers at its New York headquarters to consider the fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- and as editorialists and wannabe wise men and women all offer their worthy thoughts on keeping the treaty going -- reality is slip-sliding away, down to a darker and more dangerous place.

We might consider just four nuclear news nuggets, all found in the last few days.

First, we have the latest from North Korea, or should we simply call it n-Korea? Amidst news reports suggesting that Pyongyang is about to explode a nuclear weapon, Mohamed El-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told CNN that most likely Kim Jong Il & Co have "five or six" nuclear weapons. And now the People's Republic of China indicates that maybe it doesn't agree with America's approach to no-nukesing North Korea. As the New York Times put it on Wednesday, "Beijing's apparent unwillingness to go along with Mr. Bush's backup plan to squeeze North Korea takes away the crucial pressure point that Mr. Bush's aides have been counting on. It also suggests that the strategy of threatening to go to the United Nations Security Council -- which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has begun to discuss -- could fail."

Second, the n-news from Iran is no better. On Monday, the Tehran government confirmed that that it converted 37 tons of raw uranium into gas, a key step in the enrichment of uranium -- enough n-richment for a half-dozen nukes. And consider: if the ayatollahs will admit to that much atomic activity, what might they truly have up their clerical sleeve?

Third, Russia and the Russians are still a source of n-trouble. A new report from Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs finds that even though the US is spending almost a billion dollars a year on securing "loose nukes" in Russia, just 26 percent of Russian nuclear materials have been properly secured. Oh, by the way, the Russians have a long history of cheating on arms-control agreements, and an even longer history of not liking America. So why should we think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any sort of good will whatsoever toward America?

Fourth, and perhaps most startlingly, The Huffington Post, the new blog, debuted with an exclusive scoop on a new book, Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection by Gerald Posner, reporting that the Saudi Arabians have rigged up their oil fields, refineries, and pipelines into one big "doomsday machine." That is, they have boobytrapped their oil-precious infrastructure so that in the event of an attack, explosives and radioactive "dirty bombs" would go off, leaving their oil fields as a wasteland for decades, even centuries, to come. According to Posner, the National Security Agency has dubbed this Saudi program "Petro SE," for petroleum-scorched earth.

Let's be blunt here: something wicked this way comes. The pricking of my thumbs, comes from the anecdotal evidence cited above, as well as from the historical sense that an onrushing overload of energy, both technological and political, is going to produce a non-peaceful outcome. And one needn't know history, of course, to know about the timeless applicability of Murphy's Law.

Some might protest that such talk is alarmist, that we'll muddle through, as always. That's possible, but the truth is, we don't always muddle through; history has a way of mocking such hopes. In 1913, after 25 peaceful years on the throne in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II was dubbed das Friedenkaiser -- the "peace Kaiser." Just a year later, of course, he was das Kriegkaiser, and that's how he'll be remembered, for all time. To some, things always seem to be peaceful -- until war erupts.

A tiny eruption came last week, and it was quickly forgotten -- although most likely it will some day be remembered as an early and obvious overture. The small bombs that went off outside the British consulate in New York City -- no arrests, no suspects, even though 17 surveillance cameras were whirring away in the vicinity -- is a reminder that almost the whole of America is a soft target.

The country is a soft target because of ongoing policy choices, too. Here's what Newt Gingrich had to say in April:

        "I think that the greatest vacuum in dealing with reality in American 
        today is immigration. The Left doesn't want to touch it. The Right doesn't 
        want to touch it. Everybody wishes it would disappear. A Pew poll came out 
        on Monday that indicated there has been a 23 percent increase in illegal 
        immigration under President Bush, suggesting there are now an estimated 
        10,300,000 illegal immigrants in the United States.

        "Some of you may think that number is low, but I want to make two sets 
        of assertions. The first is based on Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss' 
        statement the other day, in which he said he expects a Weapon of Mass 
        Destruction to come in, either from Canada or Mexico. Remember that the 
        Canadian border was where most of the people who carried out 9/11 crossed, 
        not Mexico, so while it's fashionable to focus on Mexico, when I talk about 
        borders, I mean both borders...We have all sorts of TSA security at airports, 
        as though our opponents are dumb enough to only go to the places 
        where the Americans have maximized the chance of stopping them.

        "The likelihood is high that the next terrorist will come in by boat or by driving
         across either the Canadian or the Mexican border; Canada is fully as easy 
        to get across as Mexico. So the first point I'd emphasize is just plain 
        national security. We have an absolute national security obligation 
        to have control of who enters the United States of America, and we should 
        insist on it."

But wait, there's more. An article in last Sunday's New York Times detailed how most of the $4.5 billion spent on homeland security equipment has been wasted. And the headline on the front page of the May 3 edition of The Washington Post said it all: "U.S. Called Unprepared for Nuclear Terrorism." Imagine: more than three-and-a-half years after 9-11, according to two leaked federal reports, the most elementary civil defense safeguards are not in place.

No wonder Americans are heading for the hills. If the US government can't or won't protect prime targets from attack, and if there is no real plan for dealing with an attack, then it's perfectly understandable that ordinary Americans will seize upon the one option which is readily available to them: dispersion. So they'll say goodbye to such obvious targets as Manhattan and Washington DC.

The dispersal-desire is inarticulate and inchoate: people just sense that there's danger in living near the architectural equivalent of a "kick me" sign during an international rumble. And if one were to articulate such thinking, it would run like this: if the state has fallen down on its Hobbesian duty to monopolize the looming threat of megaviolence inside the polity, then individual members of the polis will head to places where they presume such megaviolence is less likely to strike.

Of course, the spreading of the population has been an ongoing process, thanks to such factors as the automobile, inexpensive mortgages, television, the Net and, yes, fear of crime and bad schools. Sophisticated urban-oriented writers might pen endless lyrical tributes to the joys of dense-packed metropolitan life, but as Joel Kotkin has pointed out, a lot more people want their own castle in the 'burbs. In 1940, New York City, its population at eight million, accounted for more than six percent of the national population. In 2000, New York still had a population of eight million, but it accounted for less than three percent of the US.

And now 9-11 will be remembered as a cruel spur to further dispersion -- and the first geo-victim, not surprisingly, will be Manhattan island. The fiasco of Freedom Tower, the would-be successor to the World Trade Center, is an early indicator that the old days are gone and not coming back. The pillars of New York ought to turn the WTC site into a park, because people will never want to work there again. And so it is with much of Lower Manhattan: it's sad hallowed ground now, fit only for mourners and others who favor black clothing, such as artists.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of more terror attacks is going to turn "Wall Street" into even more of an abstraction than it already is. The proposed merger between the New York Stock Exchange and Archipelago Holdings may or may not come to fruition, but even if that particular deal falls apart, the complete automation, and complete virtualization, of the stock market is a certainty. In which case, the need to be physically in or near New York City will be lessened. Yes, there's all that art and culture, but Fun City will be a lot less fun in the wake of the next terrorist attack.

What will seem like fun, in fact, is controlling one's own micro-environment, even as the macro-environment goes to hell. Once again, elements of this trend have been evident for a long time: home security systems, gated communities, bottled water. But in a world of nuclear proliferation, in which nukes and other WMDs can ride around via truck drivers, hijackers, and backpackers, the need to put distance, as well as a fence, between friend and foe will be felt all the more urgently.

To gain perspective on this future, we might look back on our past.

Imagine, as an example, living in the Roman Empire in the third century CE. Wave after wave of Germanic tribes are moving west, into Rome's territory. Some want to become peaceful farmers and shepherds, but others want to plunder. And driving them all westward are the Huns, rampaging through the Eurasian heartland. The Roman legions will win their share of the battles ahead, but they will lose some, too. And above all, the demographic tide will keep flowing into, and on top of, the West. Under this onslaught, the Empire will become unrecognizable, and then fall.

What to do? One wise response back then came from Benedict of Nursia, known to us as St. Benedict the Great, founder of the Christian monastic movement. In the sixth century, he could see that the macro-environment was collapsing. So he set about creating his own micro-environment. It worked. Through the whole of the coming Dark Age, for the better part of a thousand years, the monasteries were the custodial vessels of Western Civilization. Only in the Middle Ages did Europe and its Church regain their vitality. Is there a parable there? Maybe it's more than coincidence that the new pope has chosen to call himself Benedict, too.

Today, the tide is technological. Back then, the barbarians wanted to be free to roam as they wished, regardless of borders; today, information wants to be free. And so the knowledge of designing, making -- and using -- WMDs is going to spread everywhere. And there's no stopping it.

But unlike the Old Monasticism of the Catholic Church, the Next Monasticism need not be ascetic; there's no reason sex and children can't be part of the package -- even though, of course, sex without children seems to be the dominant mode in the West nowadays. Indeed, one can only guess what sort of psycho-spiritual transformation will run through people in the wake of a Big One.

Of course, others will have their own ideas. After all, there's no reason the Next Monasticism must be horizontal, from one part of the earth to another. Why can't the retreat to safety be, in fact, an advance to a better place? Why can't the Next Monasticism be vertical?

Elon Musk, who made a billion dollars on PayPal, is now demonstrating that facilitating e-commerce was just the beginning of his vision. His next project is a company called Space Exploration Technologies, which is getting into the satellite-launch business in a big way. But Musk isn't stopping there; his ultimate mission is to see humanity move into space -- we should all be safe enough from al-Qaeda there. As Musk said to Investor's Business Daily last month, "We hope to colonize space, though yes, it might take 500 years." That's a vision even bigger and bolder than Benedict's.

Once again, the reader might ask: is this really necessary? Can't we all just get along, here on this earth, as we always have -- except, of course, for the times that we haven't?

For an answer to that question, let's consider one more piece of late-breaking news. Newsweek reports that the US was "shockingly unprepared" for the UN's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference, mostly because the Bush administration's point man on arms control, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, has been busy concentrating on his appointment to be UN Ambassador. And that's why, according to the magazine, the US has "been losing control of the conference's agenda this week to Iran and other countries -- a potentially serious setback to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran."

By itself, the news that the US is not getting its way inside the UN is just a small piece of news -- and no great shock. Yet at the same time, this latest item counts as another n-pebble. And with enough pebbles, we get an avalanche. It can't be stopped. All we can do is get out of the way.

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