Friday, February 20, 2015

The absurdity of 'existential threat'

For a number of years now, discourse has been polluted by the phrase 'existential threat', something that might call to mind legions of Jean Paul Sartre wannabes going all absurd on random passersby. But no, it is a phrase almost always involving Israel, in the mouths of right wing politicians, Israeli or American, and most recently, one showing up in the talking points from the White House. James Fallows is, as usual, insightful:
On language: We've reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is "existential," as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world."
I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.
By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.
In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in the WSJ or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats.
Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is. Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.
Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.
Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea.
South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.
It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.
Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts.
The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary.
As he says later in the post, the phrase replaces thought. Read the whole piece at the Atlantic.

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