When The Bullet Hits The Bullet

Published August 16, 2001

The Catholic Difference

History is not without a sense of humor, particularly when it comes to deflating a politician trying to substitute what he imagines to be wit for serious argument.

Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a recent hearing that the Bush administration’s “plans for missile defense in 2002 have been harder to zero in on than a target in a missile defense test.” A few days later, on July 14, an interceptor launched from the Marshall Islands killed a target missile that had been launched from California, almost five thousands miles away. The intercept took place in space, one hundred forty-four miles above the earth. When the interceptor took out the target, the two vehicles’ combined speed was 16,200 miles per hour.

So much for the jokes about “Star Wars.” Even, one hopes, from United States senators.

The relentless opposition to missile defense is one of the most bizarre hangovers from the Cold War, and from the fear of global nuclear holocaust that shaped world politics from 1945 until 1991. During that period, the strategic theory of “mutual assured destruction” was a kind of blunt regulatory mechanism, keeping the superpowers and their allies from going over the brink of confrontation. If each side remained vulnerable to the other’s nuclear arsenal, the theory had it, neither would shoot first. “Mutual assured destruction” – MAD, as the acronym had it, with more than a little irony – worked: in part because the consequences of its failure were simply unthinkable, and in part because no alternatives were available.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972, was intended to strengthen MAD by maintaining mutual vulnerability between the superpowers. It was also signed at a time when missile defense was in a very primitive stage of development, guided by computers far less powerful than your basic laptop today. The treaty, like similar international instruments, provides for the withdrawal of one party after a period of advance notice.

The world is a very different place today. The Cold War is over. The country with which the United States signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty does not exist. Missile defense, as the July test in the Pacific demonstrated, is a very live possibility, not the sci-fi fantasy of a retired movie actor (as most of the anti-missile defense crowd still thinks of Ronald Reagan).

The threats have also changed. China could, in the future, pose a strategic threat to the free world similar to that once posed by the soviet Union. But the immediate problem is the possibility that outlaw states (like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya) could fit weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, nuclear) onto ballistic missiles with ranges sufficient to reach the United States or our allies.

Why, then, does so much of what calls itself the “arms control community” continue to resist missile defense? “Because a bullet can’t hit a bullet,” they frequently say. But now we know that a bullet can indeed hit a bullet. And yet the resistance continues; why?

One part of the answer lies, I think, in the fact that the secular liberal mind has not so completely disentangled itself from ancient religious instincts as it imagines. Throughout the Cold War, opposition to missile defense was a kind of bizarre totem by which arms control community tried to appease the god of Mass Destruction. Vulnerability was the incense to be offered to appease the destructive appetites of this capricious and nasty deity, who had held the world in thrall since Hiroshima. The threats have changed. But the mind set hasn’t. Appeasing the god of Mass Destruction by offering one’s children as vulnerable hostages to this brutal deity’s good will remains part of the package.

Defense of the nation is one of the prime moral responsibilities of government. Missile defense, given adequate research funding, is a genuine possibility. Shared with allies and friendly nations, it would immeasurably enhance the security of free peoples while disempowering some of the world’s most dangerous despots.

It’s time to stop living in the past. It’s time to stop appeasing the god of Mass Destruction. Missile defense is not morally dubious. Missile defense is a moral obligation.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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