I don't know if you noticed, but it appears that the post cold war era is over. The Putin appointed head of a Russian news agency Dmitry Kiselyov went on Russian television this morning and stated that Russia is "the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust." In case anyone wanted to dismiss that as being short of a threat, he went on to say the President Obama's hair was turning gray because he was worried about Russia's nuclear arsenal. We have not heard that kind of serious rhetoric since the actual Cold War. As a survivor of the Cold War, I went back and looked at what time period it ran for and although it is apparently controversial the dates 1947 to 1991 are commonly cited. I can remember writing a paper in middle school on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction as the driving force behind the Cold War. In the time I have thought about it since, some of the cool heads that prevented nuclear war were in the military and in many if not most cases Russian. We probably need to hope that they are still out there rather than an irresponsible broadcaster who may not realize that if the US is dust, irrespective of what happens to Russia as a result of weapons, the planet will be unlivable.
I am by nature a survivalist of sorts. And when I detect the Cold War heating up again I start to plan for the worst. The survivalist credo is that we are all 9 meals away from total chaos. So I start to think about how much food, water, and medicines I will have to stockpile. What king of power generation system will I need? What about heating, ventilation and air filtration? And what about access? There are currently condominiums being sold in old hardened missile silos, but what are the odds that you will be able to travel hundreds of miles after a nuclear attack? If you are close to the explosion there will be fallout and the EMP burst will probably knock out the ignition of your vehicle unless you have the foresight and resources to store it inside a Faraday cage every night. There is also the question of what happens to the psychology of your fellow survivors. In the post apocalyptic book The Road - a man and his son are surviving in the bleakest of circumstances on the road. We learn through a series of flashbacks that their wife and mother could not adapt to the survivalist atmosphere and ended her life. In one scene, they meet an old man on the road and the man gets into the following exchange with him after the old man says he knew the apocalyptic event was coming. It captures the paradox of being a survivalist (pp 168-169):
Man: "Did you try to get ready for it?"
Old Man: "No. What would you do?"
Man: "I don't know"
Old Man: "People always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there."
Man: "I guess not."
Old Man: "Even if you knew what to do you wouldn't know what to do. You wouldn't know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose your were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?"
By my own informal polling there are very few people who want to unconditionally survive - either a man-made or natural disaster. Many have told me that they could not stand to be in their basement for more than a few hours, much less days or months or years.
For the purpose of this post, I want to hone in on the rhetoric or more specifically the threats. I have had previous posts on this blog that look at how this rhetoric flows from the history of warfare and dates back to a typical situation with primitive man. In those days, the goal of warfare was the annihilation of your neighbors. In many cases, the precipitants were trivial like the theft of a small number of livestock or liaisons between men and women of opposing tribes. In tribes of small numbers of people, even when there were survivors if enough were killed it could mean the extinction of a certain people. Primitive man seemed to think: "My adversaries are gone and the problem is solved."
Over time, the fighting was given to professional soldiers and it seemed more formalized. There were still millions of civilian casualties. I think at least part of the extreme rhetoric of Kielyov is rooted in that dynamic. Many will say that is is propaganda or statements being made for political advantage and in this case there are the possible factors of nationalism or just anger at the US for some primitive rhetoric of its own. But I do not think that a statement like this can be dismissed without merit. There were for example two incidents where Russian military officers exercised a degree of restraint that in all probability prevented a nuclear war. In one of those cases the officer was penalized for exercising restraint even though he probably avoided a full scale nuclear war. In both cases the officers looked into the abyss and realized that they did not want to be responsible for the end of civilization as we know it.
I don't think extreme rhetoric is limited to international politics. It certainly happens with every form of intolerance at one point or another if that intolerance is rooted in race, religions or sexual preference. That is especially true if there are physical threats and physical aggression. Intolerant rhetoric can also occur at a more symbolic level. We have seen extreme rhetoric on psychiatry blogs recently. Rather than the annihilation of the United States, the posters would prefer the annihilation of psychiatry. I would say it is a symbolic annihilation but it is clear that many of them want more than that. It still flows from the sense of loyalty to tribe, the need to annihilate the opponents, the necessary rigid intolerance and the resulting distortion of rational thought. Certainly self serving bias exists to some extent in everyone, and it may not be that apparent to the biased person. It took Ioannidis to open everyone's eyes to that fact in the more rational scientific world. It can serve a purpose in science where the active process often requires a vigorous dialogue and debate. Sometimes people mistake science for the truth when science is a process. In order for that dialogue and debate to occur in an academic field there has to be a basic level of scholarship in the area being debated. Without it there is a digression to tribal annihilation dynamics and complete intolerance. That is counterproductive and negates any legitimate points that the proponents might otherwise have.
In science, the risks are lower. At the minimum it adds nothing to the scientific debate. An irrational bias with no basis in reality is the most primitive level of analysis. In the 21st century, nobody needs to be annihilated in reality or at the symbolic level.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Cormac McCarthy. The Road. Vintage Books. New York, 2006.