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Some 25 years ago, when I was young and stupid, I was swept off my feet by Jonathan Schell’s book “The Fate of the Earth.” Schell’s argument consisted of three propositions.
First, he set out to prove that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would be a very bad thing. It’s fair to say he succeeded.
His other two claims were more problematic. According to Schell, morally serious people were under an obligation to take the threat of nuclear war very seriously — so seriously, that thinking seriously about the end of the world as we know it pretty much precluded thinking about anything else.
Even more problematic was Schell’s conclusion regarding where are all this very serious thinking should lead. Although “The Fate of the Earth” was alarmingly vague about what, exactly, could be done about what the book described as an intolerable situation, Schell argued that many of the basic goods of our society, such as, for example, “liberty,” had “become inimical to life and must be swept away.”
Schell’s book became the unofficial bible of the nuclear freeze movement. I was a college student at the time, and I recall the rapturous reception a campus speaker received when he claimed that unilateral disarmament was the only moral response to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
“Fate of the Earth” hasn’t aged too well. Michael Kinsley has suggested that it “may be the silliest book ever taken seriously by serious people.”
Yet an argument quite similar to Schell’s is now being made by a new generation of very serious thinkers — except this argument is far more absurd and dangerous than Schell’s ever was.
An example of this new argument is provided by Mitt Romney, in his response to a Boston Globe questionnaire regarding the limits of presidential power. Romney’s basic position is that, given the supposedly existential threat posed by terrorism, there are almost no limits on what a president may do.
Romney either explicitly claims or strongly implies that, among other things, the president may spy on Americans without a warrant, even in the face of a statue that prohibits this; that he may attack other countries without congressional authorization; that he may ignore treaties ratified by the Senate; and that he may issue signing statements reserving the right to ignore laws enacted under his signature.
What justifies these extraordinary claims, which in effect would turn the presidency of the United States into something resembling a dictatorship? The answer, it turns out, is exactly the same one given by Schell: given the magnitude of the threat, “liberty” is something we can no longer afford. As Romney puts it, “our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive.”
But Romney’s views — which of course are similar to the Bush administration’s — are actually far more unhinged and dangerous than Schell’s. After all, the threat of nuclear apocalypse really was ever-present during the cold war. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each other, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice.
Romney, by contrast, is willing to tear up the Constitution because of the possibility that terrorists may eventually acquire one such weapon. (It’s worth noting the people now claiming terrorists with one hypothetical weapon are more dangerous than Russians with ten thousand real ones, because the Soviets were “rational,” are often the same people who used to claim the Godless communists couldn’t be deterred because they had no respect for human life).
A more crucial difference is that, even during the height of the nuclear freeze era, the extremists calling for unilateral disarmament had no real political power.
Unfortunately today’s extremists are either sitting in the White House or working hard to get inside.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)