It’s time to panic!
As 2015 ended, this country was certifiably terror-stricken. It had the Islamic State (IS) on the brain. Hoax terror threats or terror imbroglios shut down school systems from Los Angeles to New Hampshire, Indiana to a rural county in Virginia. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, citing terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, cancelled a prospective tour of Europe thanks to terror fears, issuing a statement that “orchestra management believes there is an elevated risk to the safety of musicians and their families, guest artists, DSO personnel, and travelling patrons.” By year’s end, the Justice Department had charged an ”unprecedented” 60 people with terrorism-related crimes (often linked to social media exchanges).
While just north of the border Canada’s new government and its citizens were embracing the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees in an atmosphere of near celebration, citizens and government officials in the Lower 48 were squabbling and panicking about the few who had made it here. (“Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, compared Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes, posting on Facebook images of snakes and refugees and asking, ‘Can you tell me which of these rattlers won’t bite you?’”)
In the two presidential debates that ended the year, focusing in whole or part on “national security,” the only global subject worthy of discussion was—you guessed it—the Islamic State and secondarily immigration and related issues. Media panelists didn’t ask a single question in either debate about China or Russia (other than on the IS-related issue of who might shoot down Russian planes over Syria) or about the relative success of the French right-wing, anti-Islamist National Front Party and its presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen (even though her American analog, Donald Trump, was on stage in one debate and a significant subject of the other). And that just begins a long list of national security issues that no one felt it worth bringing up, including the fact that in Paris, 195 countries had agreed on a potentially path-breaking climate change deal.
As the Dallas Symphony Orchestra signaled, “Paris” now means only one thing in this country: the bloody terror attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theater and related assaults. In fact, if you were following the “news” here as 2015 ended, you might be forgiven for thinking that we Americans lived in a land beset by, and under siege from, Islamist terror and the Islamic State. The latest polls indicate that striking numbers of Americans now view the threat of terrorism as the country’s number-one danger, see it as a (if not the) critical issue facing us, believe that it and national security should be the government’s top priorities, and are convinced that the terrorists are at present “winning.”
You would never know that, if you left out what might be called self-inflicted pain like death by vehicle (more than 33,000 deaths annually), suicide by gun (more than 21,000 annually) or total gun deaths (30,000 annually), and fatal drug overdoses (more than 47,000 annually), this is undoubtedly one of the safest countries on the planet. Over these years, the American dead from Islamist terror outfits or the “lone wolves” they inspire have added up to the most modest of figures, even if you include that single great day of horror, September 11, 2001. Include deaths from non-Islamist right-wing acts of terror (including, for instance, Dylann Roof’s murders in a black church in Charleston), a slightly more impressive figure in recent years, and you still have next to nothing. Even if you add in relatively commonplace mass shootings, from school campuses to malls to workplaces, that are not defined as “terror,” and accept the broadest possible definition of such shootings (a minimum of four killed or injured), you would still have the sort of danger that couldn’t be more modest compared to death by vehicle, suicide, or drugs—phenomena that obsess few Americans.
The Islamic State in Perspective
Still, as 2016 begins, terror remains the 800-pound gorilla (in reality, a marmoset) in the American room and just about the only national security issue that truly matters. So why shouldn’t I join the crowd? Who wants to be left in the lurch? But first, I think it makes sense to put the Islamic State in perspective.
Yes, it’s a brutal, extreme religious-cum-political outfit, the sort of movement that probably could only arise on a shattered landscape in a shattered region filled with desperate souls looking for any explanation for, or solution to, nightmarish lives. There can be no question that it’s had remarkable success. Its self-proclaimed “caliphate” now controls territory the size of (to choose a common comparison) Great Britain with a population of perhaps a few million people. Since there are seldom reporters on the scene (for obvious reasons of health and well-being), we have no idea whether IS has 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, or 50,000 fighters and potential suicide bombers under arms. We do know that those arms (despite a couple of captured tanks) are generally light and the bombs largely of the home-made variety.
The Islamic State has shown quite a knack for generating a stream of revenue from black-market oil sales, ransoms from kidnappings, the ransacking of the region’s archeological heritage, and wealthy Sunnis elsewhere in the region. In addition, it’s been skilled at promoting its “brand” in other parts of the Greater Middle East and Africa, from Afghanistan to Libya, Yemen and Nigeria, where local populations are also facing shattered landscapes, failed states, oppressive governments, and desperation. Finally, thanks to the talents of its social-media militants, it’s shown a facility for attracting disaffected (and sometimes whacked-out) young Muslims from Europe and even the United States, as well as for inspiring “lone wolves” to acts meant to unnerve its enemies in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.
So give credit where it’s due. Compared to a few training camps in Afghanistan—the Al Qaeda model before 2001 (and again recently)—this is no small thing. But the Islamic State should also be put in some perspective. It’s not Nazi Germany. It’s not the Soviet Union. It’s not an existential threat to the United States. It’s a distinctly self-limited movement, probably only capable of expanding its reach if even more of the region is laid to waste (as is, for instance, happening in Yemen right now, thanks in large part to a US-backed Saudi war on the Iranian-inclined Houthi rebels).
IS is so deeply sectarian that it can never gain the support of a single Shia, Christian, Alawite, or Yazidi. Its practices, religious and political, are too extreme for many of the Sunnis it might want to appeal to. It is also an embattled movement. It has already lost some of the lands it captured to US-backed Kurds in both Syria and Iraq and to the US-backed, US-equipped, and US-trained Iraqi Army as well as Shiite militias. Its extremism has clearly alienated some of the Sunnis under its control. It’s unlikely to take seven decades, as in the case of the Soviet Union, to implode and disappear.
On the other hand, if the Islamic State, at least in its present form, is crushed or driven into some corner and the region is “liberated,” one thing is guaranteed—as images of the rubble and landscapes of skeletal buildings left behind at the “victorious” battle sites of Kobane, Sinjar, Homs, and Ramadi will tell you. Combine the massively bomb-laden, booby-trapped urban areas under Islamic State control, American air power (or, in parts of Syria, the barrel-bombing air force of the government of Bashar al-Assad and now the firepower of Russia), and fierce urban combat, and what may be left in the moment of “victory” could be a region in utter ruins. One expert suggests that it may take decades and cost $200 billion—three times Syria’s prewar gross domestic product—to rebuild that country, bringing to mind the famed line from Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
And just remind me, who’s going to help with the reconstruction of that shattered land? Donald Trump? Don’t count on it. And don’t for a second believe that from such devastated worlds nothing worse than the Islamic State can arise.
While we may be talking about a terror machine, IS represents a far more modest and embattled one than its social-media propaganda would indicate. Its ability to threaten the United States bears little relation to the bogeyman version of it that at present occupies the American imagination. The sole advantage the Islamic State has when it comes to this country is that it turns out to be so easy to spook us.
“A Republic of Insects and Grass”
Still, don’t for a second think that terror isn’t on the American agenda. You really want terror? Let me tell you about terror. And I’m not talking about 14 dead (San Bernardino) or 130 dead (Paris). What about up to 140,000 dead? (The toll from Hiroshima.) What about 285 million dead? (The official estimate of the dead, had the US military’s Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, of 1960 been carried out via more than 3,200 nuclear weapons delivered to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities—and that didn’t include casualty figures from whatever the Soviet Union might have been able to launch in response.)
Or what about—to move from past slaughters and projected slaughters to future ones—a billion dead? Despite the recent surprise visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart, that remains a perfectly “reasonable” possibility, were a nuclear war ever to develop in South Asia. India and Pakistan, after all, face each other across a heavily armed and fortified 1,800-mile border, having fought three major wars since 1947. Small armed incidents are commonplace. Imagine that—to take just one possible scenario—extreme elements in the Pakistani military (or other extremist elements) got their hands on some part of that country’s ever-expanding nuclear arsenal, now believed to be at about 130 weapons, and loosed one or more of them on India, starting a nuclear exchange over issues that no one else on Earth gives a damn about.
Imagine that, in the course of the war that followed, each side released “only” 50 Hiroshima-sized weapons on the other’s cities and industrial areas (“0.4% of the world’s more than 25,000 warheads”). One study suggests that, along with the 20 million or so inhabitants of South Asia who would die in such an exchange, this “modest” local nuclear conflagration would send enough smoke and particulates into the stratosphere to cause a planetary “nuclear winter” lasting perhaps a decade. The ensuing failure of agricultural systems globally could, according to experts, lead a billion or more people to starve to death. (And once you’re talking about a crisis of that magnitude, one that humanity has never experienced, god knows what other systems might fail at the same time.)
I hope by now you’re feeling a little shudder of fear or at least anxiety. Perhaps not, though, since we’re remarkably well protected from thinking about the deeper terrors of our planet. And mind you, if you’re talking terror, that South Asian war is penny ante compared to the sort of event that would be associated with the thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Since the Cold War ended, they have more or less been hidden in plain sight. Call it an irony of sorts, then, that nuclear weapons have loomed large on the American landscape in these years, just not the ones that could truly harm us. Instead, Americans have largely focused in the usual semi-hysterical fashion on a nuclear weapon—the Iranian bomb—that never existed, while Russian and American arsenals undoubtedly capable of destroying more than one Earth-sized planet have remained in place, heavily funded and largely unnoted.
When you look at what might be posssible under unknown future conditions, there is no reason to stop with mere millions or even a billion dead human beings. A major nuclear exchange, it is believed, could lead to the shredding of the planetary environment and a literal liquidation of humanity: the wiping out, that is, of ourselves and the turning of this country into, in the phrase of Jonathan Schell, “a republic of insects and grass.” As he explained so famously in his international bestseller of 1982, The Fate of the Earth, this became a genuine possibility in the post-Hiroshima decades and it remains so today, though it is given scant attention in a world in which tensions between the United States and Russia have been on the rise.
Apocalypses, Fast or Slow-Mo
It’s not that we don’t live on an increasingly terrifying planet. We do. It’s that terror fears, at least in our American world, are regularly displaced onto relatively minor threats.
If you want to be scared, consider this unlikelihood: in the course of just a few centuries, humanity has stumbled upon two uniquely different ways of unleashing energy—the burning of fossil fuels and the splitting of the atom—that have made the sort of apocalypse that was once the property of the gods into a human possession. The splitting of the atom and its application to war was, of course, a conscious scientific discovery. Its apocalyptic possibilities were grasped almost immediately by some of its own creators, including physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who played a key role in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb during World War II. As he witnessed its awesome power in its initial test in the New Mexican desert, this line from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The destroyer of worlds indeed—or at least, potentially, of the one world that matters to humanity.
The other method of wrecking the planet was developed without the intent to destroy: the discovery that coal, oil, and later natural gas could motor economies. It was not known until the final decades of the last century that the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of such forms of energy could heat the planet in startling ways and undermine the very processes that promoted life as we had always experienced it. It’s worth adding, however, that the executives of the giant oil companies knew a great deal about the dangers their products posed to Earth way before most of the rest of us did, suppressed that information for a surprisingly long time, and then invested prodigious sums in promoting the public denial of those very dangers. (In the process, they left the Republican Party wrapped in a straitjacket of climate change denial unique on the planet.) Someday, this will undoubtedly be seen as one of the great crimes of history, unless of course there are no historians left to write about it.
In other words, if enough fossil fuels continue to be burned in the many decades to come, another kind of potential extinction event can be imagined, a slow-motion apocalypse of extreme weather—melting, burning, flooding, sea-level rise, storming, and who knows what else.
And if humanity has already managed to discover two such paths of utter destruction, what else, at present unimagined, might someday come into focus?
In this context, think of the Islamic State as the minor leagues of terror, though at the moment you wouldn’t know it. If we are all now the children of the holocaust—of, that is, our own possible extinction—and if this is the inheritance we are to leave to our own children and grandchildren, perhaps it’s understandable that it feels better to fear the Islamic State. Its evil is so specific, so “other,” so utterly alien and strangely distant. It’s almost comforting to focus on its depredations, ignoring, of course, the grotesquely large hand our country had in its creation and in the more general spread of terror movements across the Greater Middle East.
It’s so much more comfortable to fear extreme Islamist movements than to take in two apocalyptic terrors that are clearly part of our own patrimony—and, to make matters harder, one of which is likely to unfold over a time period that’s hard to grasp, and the other under as yet difficult to imagine political circumstances.
It’s clear that neither of these true terrors of our planet and our age has to happen (or at least, in the case of climate change, come to full fruition). To ensure that, however, we and our children and grandchildren would have to decide that the fate of our Earth was indeed at stake and act accordingly. We would have to change the world.