Thursday 4 December 2003

The Doomsday Machine

by John Chuckman

It occurred to me to write a satire about Osama and the boys sitting around in the mountains somewhere holding a conference about the worst possible damage they could inflict on the United States and deciding that it would be whatever act got Bush re-elected.

But retired American General Tommy Franks came along and spoiled the fun. General Franks has followed the advice of the fictional Doctor Strangelove by announcing to the world what he believes will happen if the United States is attacked by terrorists using strategic weapons: he says Americans will scrap the Constitution and set up a military government... If you recall the bitter and hilarious Cold War film, Dr. Strangelove, there is a scene where the Soviet ambassador puts down the phone to Moscow, groaning about "The fools, oh, the mad fools," and then informs the American President and Pentagon brass for the first time of the Doomsday Machine. The Doomsday Machine, he explains to those gathered in a desperate effort to stop an unauthorized attack launched by a lunatic American wing commander, is an automated device that, once set, cannot be prevented from responding to any attack by releasing an earth-straddling cloud of deadly radiation.

Doctor Strangelove, a character based on captured scientists and others from Nazi Germany who rose to high places in the American government during the Cold War, shrieks from his wheelchair, struggling to control the tendency of his right arm to rise in the Hitler salute, what is the good of such a deterrent if no one is told about it?

Indeed, so General Franks has warned us. Considering the wholesale insanity we've witnessed since 9/11, there is little reason to doubt the general's judgment.

Many Americans would not be frightened by the idea of military government. After all, they receive a steady diet of sappy stuff about "our boyz." But if you look at what the boys have been doing lately in Iraq and recall the atrocities of Vietnam, any warm, cozy expectation of being ruled by the likes of Jimmy Stewart in khakis vanishes.

For many reasons, democracy always has had a tenuous hold in America. Its history as a democracy where almost everyone can vote only goes back several decades, and as we saw in Florida during the last presidential election, that basic principle is not yet firmly entrenched. The adolescent nature of much of American culture - exhibited in a thousand ways from endless movies about muscle-bound superheroes to the flag-waving spectacles made of football games - reveals an attraction to fascism, fascism being merely an adult form of adolescent fantasies about power.

It is not difficult at all to imagine democracy's hold being quickly snapped, especially where dark, exaggerated fears are involved, such fears also being a prominent feature of American culture. Consider the millions of Christian fundamentalists who fervently embrace the notion that earth faces imminent destruction in an Armageddon. Just a few years ago, as the calendar turned to the year 2000, millions of secular crackpots, the militia/survivalist types, stocked ammunition and freeze-dried rations in a modern-day repeat of the fallout shelter lunacy of the 1950s. There have been countless gatherings on mountaintops to await the "end of time" and many bizarre mass suicides. America, reflecting its unpleasant Puritan heritage, almost certainly leads the advanced world in holding to voodoo-like fears.

The impact of an American military government on the world would be incalculable. Treaties, agreements, diplomatic conventions all might effectively be suspended since it is the Constitution that gives foreign treaties their primacy in law within the United States. International borders effectively could be erased since few are in a position to prevent the American military's taking whatever arbitrary measure it pleases. The United Nations might well be dismissed as an unnecessary expense and a security risk.

Huge, destabilizing uncertainties would be introduced into world markets. The flow of international capital would be affected. A world depression could easily be induced. After all, it was poorly-considered American law, the Smoots-Hawley Tariff, that helped create the Great Depression.

The military-service draft would certainly be re-introduced.

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