December 28, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     Until this week, most of us didn't know the 
difference between a tidal wave and a tsunami. I didn't, 
though I'd read a few articles about tsunamis. They were 
largely figures of speech, not realities we'd experienced 
or even witnessed on television.

     I had no idea a tsunami on this stupendous scale was 
even possible. It reached as far as Somalia in the west 
and Australia in the east (though it did little damage to 
Australia's coast).

     One day the death toll was already estimated at 
23,000; the next morning it was put at 44,000 and rising; 
by afternoon the figure was put around 60,000. These are 
the known dead, not counting those who are missing. 
Countless others will die of disease, despite frantic 
relief and rescue efforts that do credit to the human 

     In its helplessness, the mind gropes for 
comparisons. Other natural disasters have claimed more 
lives. Less flatteringly to the human race, so have our 
wars, even in recent memory. It's horrifying to reflect 
that we deliberately prepare to inflict on each other 
worse calamities than the one we are now deploring. And 
we do it in the name of "defense" and "freedom."

     Maybe that's the only moral to be drawn from this 
awesome display of nature's amoral power: that modern man 
-- specifically, the modern state -- has learned to 
surpass nature in destruction. So far the tsunami's death 
toll hasn't even reached that of the first atomic bomb in 

     Today we all live under a threat of death at the 
hands of other men who are as nearly beyond our control 
as nature is. Is it any comfort to say that we are 
protected from our rulers by "democracy"? Ultimately, and 
often as a practical matter, we are their slaves. We must 
obey them. We are at their mercy. Nuclear weapons are 
only one of many forms of their power over us, one it may 
be inconvenient for them to use against us. But it's 
there, the final instrument and symbol of their 

     Not that any state is likely to nuke its own 
subjects; we trust our own rulers not to do that! In 
fact, we talk as if they are "us." We take for granted 
that "we" -- they -- would use such weapons only against 
the subjects of other states. This is supposed to 
guarantee our own freedom, no matter how much of that 
freedom our rulers violate. The tacit understanding is 
that states would inflict disasters -- tsunamis, so to 
speak -- only on each other.

     "Our" state, we feel, is entitled to have this power 
over other states; they aren't entitled to have it over 
ours. So "our" state is justified in going to war to 
prevent them from getting it.

     This is the logic of preventive or "preemptive" war. 
One state, which already possesses nuclear weapons, may 
justify attacking another merely by claiming that the 
second state is seeking to acquire them. Once again, this 
is called "defense."

     Once the principle of "preemptive" war is accepted, 
there is no limit to it. We have to trust that "our" 
government, being run by people like ourselves, will 
apply it with restraint. But why should we? The principle 
lends itself readily to fanaticism. After all, better 
safe than sorry! Even if there is no real evidence that 
an enemy is planning to attack us, the smoking gun could 
turn out to be a mushroom cloud! Can "we" afford to take 
that chance?

     So what we call "defense" amounts to developing an 
unlimited capacity to inflict calamities on other 
countries. We feel anguish when we see the results of a 
natural calamity like the tsunami. But having our own 
government arming to impose far worse suffering is just 
business as usual. It causes us no real anguish or even 
anxiety -- as long as we think the potential targets are 
other people.

     "Good" states, like our own, would use their power 
only against "bad" states. And how do we distinguish the 
good from the bad? By whether they are "democratic" -- 
holding periodic elections. But of course "our" state 
must be satisfied that those elections are honest.

     Even the most (apparently) well-meaning states are 
always taken by surprise by events they can't control. 
The twenty-first century will bring political tsunamis.


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