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129 MIN READ TIME

Deterrence and Its Discontents

“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.

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