On Existential Threats: It's Not Just Israel

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In an item today, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes a Commentary article by an Israeli author about why Iran's mere possession of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change Israel's conditions of existence. Thanks to Israel's ability to defend itself, according to the Commentary author (with emphasis in original):

We Jews no longer live--and die--at the whim of others. That sense of security would evaporate the minute Iran had the weapon it seeks. Even if Israel does possess a second-strike capability, and even if the U.S. could be counted on to punish a nuclear attack on the Jewish state, the existential condition of the Jews would still have reverted to that experienced in pre-state Europe. It would mean that Jews by the tens of thousands could die because someone else determined that it was time for them to do so. No action that Israel could take in response would change that fundamental reality.

Quite obviously everything about Israel's formation and predicament, and the long "pre-state Europe" history of Jews living and dying "at the whim of others," is unique. But what struck me is that the terrifying "fundamental reality" the author describes is in fact the predicament of all humanity since the coming of large-scale nuclear arsenals. If you altered the passage to reflect the worldwide condition, it would conclude:

Humanity's sense of security has evaporated with the spread of nuclear weapons. Even if America or Russia does possess a second-strike capability, and even if they or other nuclear powers can be counted on to punish a nuclear attack on themselves or an ally, the existential condition of humanity has still have reverted to an intolerably vulnerable level. People by the tens of millions can die because someone else determined that it is time for them to do so. No action that any country could take in response changes that fundamental reality.

Reasons for mentioning this: not to minimize Israel's concern about Iran's attitudes, nor at the moment to re-litigate the case about preemptive attacks on Iran. (For the record, I'm strongly against, although I recognize the value of "strategic ambiguity" on this front -- ie, letting the Iranian leadership think an attack might possibly be coming, even if in the end the U.S. or even Israel would not carry it out.)

Rather the point is to clarify (a) that this is not a new, hypothetical, and Israeli-specific problem but a decades-old and very real problem already confronting most of humanity -- notwithstanding all the special vulnerabilities of Israel's situation. There is literally nothing that can assure any of us that we will not be killed tomorrow, by the millions, in an accidental or irrational nuclear exchange. As long as the weapons exist, the possibility remains. Deterrence and "confidence-building" have been the only ways to manage it. And (b) that a benefit of discussing the "existential" threat to Israel's "sense of security" might be new attention to the comparable but broader threat to humanity as a whole. The movie Countdown to Zero raises precisely this issue, and demonstrates why, even though we've generally stopped talking or worrying about "official" nuclear arsenals (as opposed to WMD controlled by terrorists), the danger has not gone away. I saw the movie this summer and meant to mention it; this is a good opportunity.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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