Cenk Uygur has been making a scene of criticizing Sam Harris’ infamous “Preventative Nuclear First Strike” hypothetical scenario. Although I find his infantalizing tone in his video insufferable and disingenuous, I think he (perhaps inadvertently) raises some interesting philosophical questions in his criticism.
Let’s delve into Harris’ “nuclear first strike” passage in its entirety.
“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.”
First, let’s dispense with the most egregious distortions of Harris’ position. He does not advocate a preventative nuclear strike against “the Muslim world” for posing some generalized, inchoate “threat”; he posits a very specific scenario in which he argues that the ethics of such a strike would be, at least, debatable and thus “on the table” for a United States President. Cenk–and many others–argue that a preventative strike even in this scenario is so unethical that even considering is evidence of a blithe dismissal of the value of Muslim civilian lives.
For his first riposte, Cenk posits a scenario where ISIS militants armed with nuclear weapons are known to be in Florida and plan to deploy a nuclear weapon against Washington, D.C. “Would you preventatively strike Florida in this scenario?” Cenk asks the viewer. Intuitively, one answers “no”, and presumably this is where one is supposed to catch oneself in one’s racism and valuation of American lives over Muslim lives. “I instinctively recoiled from the strike on Florida–why did I think it might be acceptable with Muslims?” a distraught observer might recoil.
The problem with scenario is that it actually makes no sense for *any* nation-state to conduct this strike, *in principle*. Imagine the government has determined there is a 90% such a chance ISIS will conduct the nuclear strike on Washington; if the government deploys a preventative first strike in response, that raises the probability of America suffering a nuclear strike to *100%*. Thus, the reason one instinctively recoils from this scenario isn’t any hidden racism, it’s because it’s utterly nonsensical conduct for a nation-state.
Next, Cenk asks one to consider, then, the ethics of conducting such a strike on, say, Israel. Again, one recoils in horror at the prospect of Tel Aviv evaporating in a ball of flame. Surely such a strike is unethical, and now, surely, one’s latent racism has been exposed?
Again, no. Harris’ scenario posits an Islamist *regime* threatening the use of nuclear weapons. To understand the importance of this, imagine two scenarios:
1) The United States government, under the direct command of the President, orders that a nuclear strike on Moscow using a warhead launched from the California. The Russians become aware of this and preventatively strike the general area of the West Coast where the warhead is known to be launched from.
2)An extremist militant group of Americans seizes control of a nuclear warhead in California and plans to deploy it against Moscow. Somehow, the Russians become aware of this plot and, without informing the United States government of the seizure and planned strike, launch a preventative strike on the general area of the West Coast where the warhead is known to be launched from.
Clearly, Russia’s conduct in scenario 1 is ethical; clearly, in scenario 2 it is much less so. What makes the difference?
The distinction lies in the concept of *sovereignty*, the concept that a democratic government derives its power from the will of its citizens. In scenario 1, the American people *elected* the President that has chosen to attempt to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike against Russia, and thus are part of the causal chain of its being ensconced in power. Thus, they bear a level of responsibility for the government’s actions and are thus fair game as “collateral damage” for the Russians’ act of self-defense. One might ultimately disagree with this conclusion, but it is, obviously at the very least *debatable* whether or not the Russians’ actions are ethically defensible.
Now consider scenario 2. The American citizens bear no responsibility, either directly or through their sovereign regime, for the nuclear threat against Russia. Thus, the Russians’ act of self-defense imperils tens of millions of innocent civilians.
Mapping these distinctions on to the Tel Aviv example, it becomes clear why a preventative first strike launched there against an ISIS cell is unethical: the probable victims of said strike bear absolutely no responsibility for the threat materializing in the first place. Likewise, if the Israeli people were to one day elect an ultra-Orthodox *regime* that attempted to execute a nuclear strike on the United States, such a preventative response would be at least debatably justifiable.
So far, two things are clear.
1)If a democratically elected sovereign regime poses an immediate nuclear threat to another nation, the latter nation may be justified in launching a preventative strike against the former.
2)If a non-state militant group poses an immediate nuclear threat to another nation, the latter nation is probably not justified in launching a preventative strike against said militant group that just happens to be operating within the confines of the former nation’s borders.
All logical enough, so why the widespread damnation of Harris? That stems, in my view, from a failure to distinguish between the ethics of what *can* happen, in principle, and what is *likely* to happen. As argued , a nuclear first strike against a democratically elected, say, German, regime that posed an immediate nuclear threat would be at least conceivable, and Harris, I’m presuming, would agree (and if he doesn’t, I would join in condemning him in not doing so). The problem is that, *in practice*–that is, in the real world–such a thing will *never* happen, and we all know it. What are the chances the German/Australian/Israeli/Indian people will collectively choose to commit national suicide by launching nuclear attacks on the United States? They are 0, and we all know it.
Now, what are the chances a democratically elected Islamist regime might pose such a threat? Nobody can know for sure, but anybody who claims that the chances are “0%” is lying, probably to themselves. Applying the dual criteria of 1)Democratically-derived sovereignty and 2)Possibillity of posing a nuclear threat, only three entities emerge: Iran, ISIS, and Hamas. To what degree all three are democratically legitimate is highly contested, of course, but clearly all three are to some degree as opposed to completely illegitimate dictatorships such as Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc.
All three entities, of course, are Islamic in character. Thus, Harris’ critics cry “racism” at every turn. However, this is a distortion of the causal arrow. The dispassonate application of the criteria *happens to yield* three Islamic regimes; these three regimes weren’t chosen *because* they are Islamic.
Again, Harris’ critics will cry that this is fallacious, because, in this analysis, the appraisal of a nation’s “likelihood” to pose a nuclear threat is explicitly related to whether or not it is Islamic. Again, this represents a failure of understanding. Because of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the probability of a given regime’s posing a nuclear threat is a function of how rational that regime is. For purposes of this analysis, Islamism qua Islamism is immaterial; Islamism as a species of irrationality is what is decisive.
Happily, nuclear bombs are incredibly difficult to either procure or develop, and the level of irrationality that would be required for a people to collectively decide to use them virtually precludes the level of stability that said procurement or development requires, thus rendering the idea of a preventative nuclear first strike ever even needing to be contemplated in the real world highly unlikely. And obviously, the deployment of nuclear weapons is such a serious matter that there is room for reasoned, honest disagreement with virtually every step of my above armchair analysis.
All Harris asks is that critics at least be clear about what they are arguing, and whether those reasons stand up to *rational* scrutiny.