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Deterrence and Its Discontents

Now That Nuclear War Seems to Be Getting More Likely Again, It’s Time to Turn a Skeptical Eye on Deterrence

“STRIKE, STRIKE THROUGH THE MASK!” SO URGED Captain Ahab, in one of his most famous lines. Admittedly, the said captain isn’t the finest role model one can imagine, but I’ve long thought that his demand is precisely what good skeptics are called to do: to strike through the mask of nonsense, false logic, and appeals to misleading passions so as to reach the substance underneath—if there is any— and to reveal its absence if such is the case. When it comes to skeptical unmasking, nuclear deterrence is long overdue. Just ask the citizens of Hawaii the second week of January 2018 when they were alerted by the government to run for cover with an ICBM incoming, possibly containing a nuclear warhead. It was a false alarm, but a stark reminder— with video footage filling the evening news of masses of peoples scrambling to find cover—that this is no theoretical game for intellectuals to play.

Deterrence is a remarkably simple concept, based on threat: If you attack me, I’ll retaliate so strongly that you’d wish you hadn’t started it. Therefore, you won’t attack me in the first place and both of us will be better off. Simple enough, or so it might seem—until it comes to nuclear deterrence. For many people, threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons (following an initial attack) is a necessary evil, the only safe and secure way to live in a world with nuclear weapons. For others, it’s downright wonderful, a guarantor of peace and, moreover, a confirmation of the power and influence of their country. For me, however—and a growing number of deterrence detractors—it’s an immense evil, a downright dunderheaded, dastardly dangerous, double dose of deception. It’s also ethically dubious (make that “despicable”), strategically incoherent and misleadingly marketed pile of nightmarish, nuclear nonsense.

You now know where I stand. Clearly many others are not so skeptical. To advocates of deterrence, nuclear weapons are not only justified, their existence seems to have worked, and to be working, right now. After all, they point out, nukes haven’t been used in conflict since August of 1945. Why, then, should one be so skeptical of nuclear deterrence?

Let’s start with a bit of biology, where deterrence, in its non-nuclear incarnation, is widespread and not always malign. It emerges in day-to-day affairs, in the animal world and even among plants. Roses and blackberries have thorns, saying in effect “Don’t touch me—or else!” Confront a spider, perhaps one that has accidentally strayed indoors and is thus on human turf rather than its own. The tiny creature will likely rear back on its hindmost legs and assume a threatening posture, one that is ridiculous given that it can easily be squashed with a shoe. Yet, everyone understands the gesture, even though to locate the most recent common ancestor shared by a spider and a human being one must go back more than 500 million years.

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About Skeptic

THE RISE OF THE NONES Imagining No Heaven — The Rise of the Nones and the Decline of Religion; Never Doubting God — Surveys on Belief in God’s Existence; Persistence of Belief in a Purposeful Universe; Honor, Dignity, Victim — A review of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars; The SkepDoc — Premature Ejaculation in the News: How Headlines Influence Our Thinking; Is the Earth Flat? Flat Earthers Are Back — How do You Best Make the Argument for a Round Earth?; Conspiracy Theorists and the Harm They Do; Bruce Perkins and Another Terrible Tragedy of the Recovered Memory Movement; Deterrence and Its Discontents: Now That Nuclear War Seems to Be Getting More Likely Again, It’s Time to Turn a Skeptical Eye on Deterrence; Reality Need Not Diminish Our Concept of Our Place in the Cosmos; Junior Skeptic — Perpetual Motion; and more…