The Right Coast

July 12, 2004
Reply to Brian: I am not unhinged
By Tom Smith

Brian Leiter, my favorite far-left voice in the blogosphere, describes me as coming unhinged in one of my recent comments on this blog. I think I may be guilty of being unclear, but not unhinged. I sometimes express myself elliptically, assuming that people will follow my leaps in logic, but someone with very different assumptions might not follow the course of my thinking. In any event, I don't think my point is that far out, or even particularly unusual. It is this:

My greatest fear is that there will be a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. that is an order or orders of magnitude worse than 9/11. That is, one with 50 or 100 thousand casualties, or even more. If that happens, I think it is likely that, for want of a better term, American society would go insane. I think the restraints that now keep the U.S. from inflicting massive (or as Brian might say, even more massive) casualties on other countries, would be gone. People who counseled restraint would get beaten up in bars. Worries about balancing national security and civil liberties would be out the window. If it turned out that the nuke that destroyed an American city came from North Korea, I think there is a good chance we would go to war against North Korea, and given their massive army and nuclear capability, I think there is a decent chance we would do that with a preemptive nuclear attack. If Iran was involved, ditto. The point I am trying to stress is that an event like a catastrophic attack would have a transformative effect on American politics. We would enter a profound disequilibrium, and there's no telling where we would end up, but it could well be a very bad place.

I am a bit of a WWII history buff. I have queried my dad endlessly on what the war in the Pacific was like, what Okinawa was like, read books, and so on. My speculation is that if the US had had twenty atomic bombs in 1945 and the "Young Tigers" palace coup had succeeded in continuing the war after Nagasaki, that we would have used all 20 bombs if necessary to defeat Japan. It was like that. If you get a feeling of what the attitude of Americans was toward Japan during WWII, you see a depth of enmity and ruthless determination that younger Americans usually don't appreciate. Consider that opposition to Japanese internment was negligible at the time. My fear is that a catastrophic terror attack against the US would bring a similar psychology about, and that the result could be, in effect, a world war, or something like one. Maybe this is a worst case scenario, and no doubt I expressed myself unclearly, but I don't think that is unhinged. If someone could convince me that a massive terror attack on US soil would not be an utterly transformative event in American politics and lead to war against all nations and groups we thought were involved, I would be relieved. But I doubt anyone can.

The second point Brian might be making, but is relevant in any event, is that we should not be so worried about a terrorist attack involving a WMD, such as a nuke or possibly a biological agent. I am not an expert on the terrorist-WMD nexus, and many of the people who write about it don't seem to be either. However, I do think the probability that terrorists could get their hands on a catastrophically destructive technology is non-trivial. Even the small probability of a catastrophe justifies investing a lot in precautions. I think the possibility that Saddam or his minions would have allowed chemical or, in the future, nuclear bomb technology to get into the hands of terrorists, more than justified regime change in Iraq, especially when you consider Saddam was essentially a criminal leader holding his population hostage. I also think Iran's nuclear ambitions will have to be curbed definitively soon, by force, if diplomacy won't work. I support a policy that says, the US simply will not allow states that have established ties with terrorist organizations to have WMDs. Call it the Smith doctrine. North Korea also remains a very big problem, but it also seems several powerful countries have an interest in curtailing their nuclear weapons program, so that might be resolvable without war. This might be a controversial set of views to hold, but it is not unhinged. I wouldn't be surprized if a majority of Americans, or at least a third, would agree with them.

The remark I made which I find harder to justify in my current cooler mood is saying that sometimes I think left-wing nuts want America to lose the war on terror, or that there should be another big attack against the US. I do find some of the positions some on the left take hard to account for otherwise, but I certainly have no stake in this view. I hope it's not true. After 9/11, however, I think there actually was some sentiment on the left to the effect that America had it coming, that there was some poetic justice in it. Sometimes I think I detect a similar sentiment in current broad gaged attacks against what I see as very legitimate efforts of self-defense by this country. But if it turns out that the American left really is patriotic, but just thinks our national security is better served by "soft power" means, and so forth, well, I think they're wrong, but I would be glad it is just a disagreement about means.

In short, I do get upset sometimes and sound like I am crazy, but if you listen to what I am actually saying, you will usually find it to be pretty reasonable. I also want to assure Brian that occassions are bound to come up in the future where I find it necessary to mock institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Yale Law School, though the subtlety of what I do is probably not captured by the word "mock." I do like Brian's references to me as an "intelligent person" and a "distinguished corporate law scholar." Brian needs no praise from me to add to his illustrious CV, so I will just add that when I was referring to left-wing nuts, I was not including Brian. He is not a "nut."