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Expanded Deterrence, Broadening the threat of retaliation

Original post made by Jane, Professorville, on Jun 21, 2008

We are facing a threat that is catastrophic in its scale.1 The damage that even a single attack with weapons of mass destruction would wreak could run into the millions of lives, and do egregious damage to American economic, political, and social structures. There is no graver threat to the United States.

This threat is only going to get more serious. The progress of technology and the increasing interconnectedness of global systems are driving both productive and destructive power down, to lower and lower levels of agency, and outwards, to the fringes of society. Accelerating advances in computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology have democratized destructive power — up to the point at which a single individual may have the power to do enormous damage.2 Today we see this peril most plainly in the justified fears about the use of the first and greatest absolute weapon — the nuclear bomb. But the threat of biological and biotechnological weaponry, powered by the highly diffused and swiftly advancing progress of the life sciences, may be even graver. Similar dangers are growing in the fields of nanotechnology, computing, and the like. Web Link

The idea of collective retaliation is an old one. What was the bombing of Dresden about? The Japanese, who butchered civilians in Nanking and Manila knew all about collective punishment. And so did the Brits, who used poison gas and strafing runs against Iraqis in the pre-World War 2 years.
There is no way to prettify collective punishment. It is so unavoidable that deterrence -- the thing that kept the world in one piece from 1949 to 1989 -- was based on it.

Comments (13)

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Posted by A Boomer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2008 at 5:57 pm


I think most people who follow global affairs would agree with you that weapons of mass destruction getting into the wrong hands will be a key issue going forward, if not the key issue.

Identifying the problem clearly, correctly, and completely is the first step.

You cite how things were done during World War II as a likely approach indicated to deal with the threat you describe in our present time. I question how attacking nation states results in the sort of deterrence and elimination of the threat that you aptly describe, including things getting into the hands of a single individual.

As you point out, this stuff is highly diffused. I will add to that that we are dealing with numerous rougue elements which have loose and rapidly changing ties to regimes such as Iran, North Korea and with groups in other countries with money but not in formal power. Going after these cancerous tumors--I honestly don't know what all it takes to do it effectively, but I do question your assertion that a Dresden/collective retaliation (which implies doing something after the fact) is the model we should use, or at a minimum use as a first line of defense or use with the expecation that it by itself will do the trick.

This is the stuff of things we never hear about as a public, nasty indeed, but the real way that such threats are excised. Fireworks of a sort look good on July 4th, but I think this is the sort of problem that requires less pyrotechnics and a focus that goes beyond a certain day or time.

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Posted by Peter
a resident of another community
on Jun 21, 2008 at 10:51 pm

I'm curious: against whom would you levy "collective retaliation"? Many of the threats described could be delivered by non-state actors, and it is from them that the threat may be largest. These non-state actors exist in a diffusive space that would be impossible to target.

I'd like to hear your thinking.

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 22, 2008 at 4:09 am

The military program to develop precision nukes to allow targeted decapitation instead of blowing away civilians while the instigators were safe in their Fuhrerbunker was halted by the same democrats who want surface warfare to return to the conscripted cannon fodder. The risk of retaliation must be to those ordering that act. The old addage that "Only a King can kill a King" is overdue for scrapping.

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Posted by Gary
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2008 at 7:10 am


The only deterrence that will work against the jihadists is to hit them where it will hurt: Mecca, Medina

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Posted by A Boomer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2008 at 10:15 am


Please elaborate on how your idea of "hitting" the places of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, where hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims go each year, helps reduce the threat of a nuclear device getting into the hands of a diffuse group of bad actors.

Unless they are incredibly stupid, methinks that these bad guys would make every effort to remain as inconspicuous as possible and do their planning in a place that is unlikely to be attacked militarily but has good access to high speed internet lines--say Switzerland, where a few such types were recently apprehended.

I am not sure your suggested "only" deterrence had much effect on these guys or would on their successors. I also think we need to be more expansive in our concern--confining it to your so called jihadists does nothing to thwart people whose persuasions are grounded in something other than a twisted interpretation of a particular faith, in the case you cite Islam.

What am I missing?

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Posted by ng
a resident of Hoover School
on Jun 22, 2008 at 2:12 pm

In the event of a WMD attack on the United States, once the guilty parties are found (and they will be found) a response of overwhelming might will need to be done. Such a response may lead to the deaths of millions, but failure to respond leaves open the door to a disaster that can kill hundreds of millions in the future.

I have always believed that the problem among a good portion of the world is that they have very little if any sensitivity to the dangers of nuclear weapons or the concept of Total War. The United States, Russia, China, Japan, much of Europe .... we as a people know what all out war is and what are the consequences. Iran and much of the Middle East, Pakistan, Venezuela and their allies in Latin America .... these leaders and their populations are terrible ignorant on what Western War machines are capable of, and on what are the consequences of unrestrained warfare.

The Iraq - Iran War, Gulf Wars I and II, the Intifada, the Pakistan-India wars, while all of these conflicts killed many, they pale to what the killing fields produced in Europe and Asia during the Second World War. But the populations that support Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., and their goals are completely oblivious to this.

This is why I am fearful that one day WMD's will be used by terrorist organizations from the Middle East .... and if not stopped they will continue to use them until their goals are reached. The only way that they can be stopped is if their civilian populations stop to support them. But they will only stop supporting these groups if they are aware that the consequences of their actions will be a price that will be unacceptable to them.

If a few American cities become empty because of a dirty bomb or a crude nuclear device, a lesson will have to be taught. Unfortunately, groups like Al Qaeda and their civilian facilitators are now running down this path. Confident in their goals and objectives .... they strongly believe that the West and their allies will not have the stomach to respond. That the West is like Barack Obama .... we do not want to kill the innocent. But history and reality are very different.

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Posted by A Boomer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2008 at 2:46 pm


If I follow your train of thought, you are suggesting that pre-emptive military initiatives directed at civiliam populations that are perceived to have in their midst people who are intent on unleashing a nuclear device, however crude, at a western/US target is the way to address this threat?

Shall we start with cities in Pakistan and Switzerland, where some recent arrests were made? What countries do you recommend? What evidence must we have to satisfy ourselves beforehand that bombing a country and killing its citizens in a necessary thing to do in order to convince those same remaining civilians that they need to turn against people dwelling in their area who have plans to nuke a US location?

We don't have a very good recent track record of knowing where WMD's are, help me understand what we will do to improve our intelligence with non-statist entities that can be a basis for attacking civilian targets in sovereign states as a way of deterring such entities.

Do you honestly think that Americans who have not ever had their land attacked in a true war understand what that means? Iraq and Iran have more recent experience fighting each other in such a manner than most Americans too young to experience Viet Nam know about war in general, let alone what it does to their own country when it takes place there.

You are too glib about killing the innocent. And you are too glib about the support these crazies have. They are not the sort of people that even care about mass support, they are fanatics with a very sick cause. This threat must be taken very seriously, but your ideas of taking out innocent lives in order to save innocent lives elsewhere is Orwellian in its view of the value of people.

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 22, 2008 at 7:47 pm

There are steps short of war we could take, but those steps have been vetoed by the liberal establishment and by the entrenched
state Department Boffins. Those steps are total reciprocity. It should benefit a nation to be our friend and suffer if our enemy. A nation that danced in the streets celebrating US deaths could whistle Dixie before they received any benefit from us. Mexican nationals in the US should receive no benefits not available equally to our folk in Mexico. If a population lost jobs because of their anti-American behavor they might rethink their ways.

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Some people cannot accept that wars are never sanitary victories, that the good guys (always their own side, of course) never just roll over the bad guys other side with impunity, if at all. But both sides have their quota of these, and that's why dumb wars happen.

However, neither side's leadership is stupid (Cheney/Bush excepted, but thankfully now on a short clock). The US and USSR stood each other off, and still do, by Mutually Assured Destruction: you kill me, I kill you back. While a small nuclear country like [take your pick according to your paranoia du jour] couldn't credibly enforce total MAD against the US, an alliance of them could inflict far more damage on us than our local jihadists expect or that our civilization's infrastructure could tolerate.

So buy, don't rent, a Rambo DVD and indulge your fantasies in private where they belong and where, as long as they stay there, you won't get hurt.

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 24, 2008 at 6:44 am

Paul, what about the consequences of Not war? An error of omission can be as disasterous as an error of commission.

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Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 24, 2008 at 12:13 pm

So Paul, you view the US and Iran as moral equals?

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 24, 2008 at 12:48 pm

"Paul, what about the consequences of Not war? An error of omission can be as disasterous as an error of commission."

All depends on the commission and the omission in question, doesn't it? Suppose, for example, Khrushchev had not omitted a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US using his Cuban missiles? I think the consequences of that not war have been pretty good.

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Posted by J.F.K. was a peacemaker
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 24, 2008 at 4:45 pm

The Soviet Union wanted to nuke U.S. but J.F.K. used diplomacy. Years later the Soviet Union collapsed. Bush, and his followers, a.k.a Jane and the Hoover institute, are so blind.

Don't believe this fear mongering Jane, she is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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