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April 25, 2010

There is a fallacy—I think it’s a fallacy—according to which you make sense of the past by collating sufficiently many historical events end-to-end. If confusion persists, it indicates that the assembled record is incomplete. Dispute is always only over which events occurred in which order.

This is wrong. Events must be not just recounted but read. Not everything happens by conscious action. You can’t simply sum the proximate causes of each link in the chain. What this method misses are the long-range, low-frequency vibrations of the collective mind, powerful and often mistaken for silence and noise.

These are not ethereal. Like each of us’s daily mental weather, they shape and are shaped by an environment of concrete things: bodies, food, tools, images, buildings, weapons.

A President is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

–Garry Wills, Bomb Power


The implicit, if not precisely explicit, narrative in Wills’s book is that the atomic bomb, supremely destructive, was also supremely sensitive—something to be defended at any cost from even the smallest threat. And infectiously so: if the bomb itself must be defended, then so must the people who build it, the troops that guard it, the bombers that carry it, the bases from which those bombers fly, the countries in which those bases lie and the foreign governments that host them. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, and any threat is an infinite threat. Security is digital: either 1 or 0; equivalently, either ∞ or 0.

The risks we face are of a new order of magnitude, commensurate with the total struggle in which we are engaged. For a free society there is never total victory, since freedom and democracy are never wholly attained, are always in the process of being attained. But defeat at the hands of the totalitarian is total defeat. These risks crowd in on us, in a shrinking world of polarized power, so as to give us no choice, ultimately, between meeting them effectively or being overcome by them.

–National Security Council Report 68

This is how Wills explains the concentration of power, after WWII, in the executive branch of the US government. The President, as Commander in Chief, controlled the bomb, so he could command any level of power and secrecy to protect it, and therefore any level of power and secrecy to defend that privilege. The Constitution itself could not interfere.

The existence of the bomb obliterated old distinctions, if mostly in our own psychology: war and peace, center and periphery, sensitive and insensitive. When you can’t distinguish vital interests from trivial ones, you’ll treat everything as maximally vital. You’ll invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality. The apparent power-hunger of the US executive may really be a sign of anxious disorientation.


Learned reactions may persist even after the initial stimulus has been removed. Ignorance might breed fear not just by preventing us from dispelling the claims of fearmongers but directly, as its natural outgrowth. Without something solid to grip we fall into paranoid fantasy as if by gravity.

The takeaway message of 9/11 seemed to be: anything at all is a weapon. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Before, we knew what the weapons were and simply had to defend them. Now, the attack might come in any form, in any context. Most Muslims are not terrorists, but those that are will sport business casual like everyone else.


Here is one way to “invest yourself in the outward signs of vitality without regard to reality”:


The new Bomb—the new navel of our fear—is the terrorists’ ideology. We tell ourselves that terrorists do not succeed by arms alone. If anything is a weapon, it is only so in the hands of a dementedly inspired terrorist.

If what makes a terrorist dangerous is what is in his head, and if anything at all is a weapon in his hands, then you will deprive him of everything, even his senses.

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