Existential threats

Recent discussions in the media about various “existential threats” have got me to wondering exactly what this term means – and as what you might call a “recovering professor” I’m also wondering whether or not this term is being used correctly or consistently by all of those bandying it about. And for those of you who might have read last week’s ScienceWonk post on Iranian nuclear weapons (as well as Professor Arrow’s insightful comment on the matter), it seems that semantics might play an important role in deciding what is – or is not – considered an existential threat.

Part of the problem is that there seems to be no universal definition of the term. One website (Jargon Database) defines an existential threat as “a military or terrorist threat to the existence of something, usually the United States. Usually involves nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons” while Wikipedia does not define the term itself, but uses the term when describing events (supervolcanoes, asteroids, etc.) that could threaten “to destroy, or drastically restrict, human civilization; could cause human extinction.” Other definitions take a somewhat broader view that includes not just threats to a nation’s existence but also threats to a nation’s government or to its national character. Agreement of what constitutes an existential threat, then, seems to hinge on agreeing what is actually being threatened.

As recently as last month we have heard, too, that cyberterrorism might pose an existential threat with the FBI defending this statement by noting that hacking could “eliminate whole companies” and “could actually cause death.” In all honesty, to me this is really stretching the use of this term – I don’t doubt that a hacker could put a company out of business (thus posing a threat to that company’s existence) and could cause serious mischief and harm, but is this really a threat to our nation? Is it appropriate to use the same term for a corporate threat, a threat to a nation’s existence, and an event that threatens to push humanity into extinction, or is this a gross misuse of the term – hyperbole that might help to raise the profile of hacking on a corporate level, but that also detracts from the seriousness of the term and the concept it represents? Do we risk devaluing the term by applying it too broadly?  It brings to mind the scene from Steve Martin’s movie Roxanne in which the main character bemoans the overuse of the word “love” by asking “How can you love a floor wax? How can you love a diaper? How can I use the same word about you that is used about a stuffing?” Since there is no consensus on what an existential threat even is, how can anyone hope to agree on what poses an existential threat? And, lacking this agreement, can we even have a reasoned discussion about this topic?

So – for the rest of this posting I’d like to narrow the focus of what might be meant by the term “existential threat” to look at some of the more serious outcomes: an event that threatens a nation’s existence as a part of the family of nations and an event that poses so great a threat to a nation’s character that it would no longer be recognizable. We saw examples of the former at the end of the Cold War, which saw the nation of Yugoslavia break up into its component pieces – Yugoslavia vanished from the map and was replaced by its component parts (just as Czechoslovakia broke into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and the former Soviet Union disintegrated into over a dozen nations). The United States faced an existential threat during the Cold War, when we worried about nuclear annihilation or conquest by the Communist world, just as Israel faced an existential threat in the attacks that followed its declaration of statehood. Examples of the latter could include the rise of communism in the formerly free nations of Eastern Europe, which completely changed the character of so many nations by turning friends and family members into possible informants and enemies; the rise of the Khmer Rouge and its perversion of Cambodian society; or the rise of totalitarian dictatorships elsewhere in the world that turned daily life upside down for the ordinary citizens of a nation.

Using the first definition of “existential threat” makes it hard to see how al Qaeda or any other terrorist group – even one armed with nuclear weapons – can pose a threat to the very existence of the United States, or to most other of the world’s nations. In this discussion I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to downplay the suffering and death such an attack would cause – I am only asking if such an attack would threaten a nation’s existence. I should also make it clear that I am not talking about the concept of a “winnable” nuclear war in which tens or hundreds of nuclear weapons might be unleashed – I am talking about a terrorist attack against a small number of cities. So with these caveats in place, does nuclear terrorism pose an existential threat to a nation?

I would argue “probably not” and I would use as my evidence the nation of Japan. I visited the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima a little over a decade ago and I think it is impossible to come away from the museum with anything other than horror at what nuclear weapons can accomplish. But the fact is that the nation of Japan survived the nuclear destruction of two of its cities and the equally devastating fire-bombing of others with both its status as a nation intact along with its national character. I would argue that Japan’s survival as a nation and as a people strongly suggests that nuclear terrorism – however terrible a cost it would inflict on a society so attacked – is not likely to pose a threat to that society’s very existence. I would further argue that, unless such an attack were so demoralizing as to cause a people to doubt their very society, its values and principles, its form of government, and its right to continue to exist, even a nuclear terrorist attack is similarly unlikely to pose an existential threat to the idea that a people have a right to exist as a nation.

Having said that, I agree that a nuclear attack – or any devastating terrorist attack – has the potential to change the character of a society and that, in this sense, it can pose an existential threat of the second sort. Consider, for example, some of the changes we have seen in the United States since the September 11 attacks. First, as before, let me qualify what I am about to say by noting that I do not intend to argue whether or not these changes are justified, whether they are for the better or for the worse, or about their morality. But that there have been changes is undeniable:

  • Detaining suspects in secret overseas holding facilities, often without documented cause
  • Staging unannounced military actions and raids on the soil of allied nations
  • Advocating torture as a national policy
  • Greatly increasing opportunities for surveillance and scrutiny of both citizens and non-citizens
  • Marking American citizens for assassination instead of arrest and trial
  • Accepting government scrutiny with remarkably little outcry
  • Accepting the politicization of the judicial system (including the Supreme Court) with remarkably little debate
  • Accepting increasing societal inequality
  • Accepting explicit governmental support of faith-based organizations
  • Permitting military operations on American soil on a routine basis

I could go on, but the net result is that, in our concerns about the risk of terrorist attack, we have accepted a huge number of changes that go far beyond what we found necessary during the Second World War or, indeed, during any other war.  Our national character has changed – as a nation we seem less concerned with individual freedoms and more concerned for individual safety and security, less concerned with striving for relative equality across society and more concerned with cementing into place the relative advantage of whatever group with which we identify. As a whole, the nation has become more conservative and much of this seems to have come about as we worry about the threat of terrorism.

So the question is whether or not terrorism poses an existential threat to our sense of national identity and to our national character? Are the substantial changes we have already undergone likely to continue and to push us into a form of government and society that would make our nation unrecognizable? Or is the character of the American people so strongly engrained that we might lurch from left to right and back again before regaining our equilibrium? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am encouraged by the fact that Americans seem to have a remarkable talent for recognizing and correcting our political and societal excesses – as a nation we seem to be fairly resilient.

So to put all of this together….

For a small nation – perhaps a nation with only one or two major cities into which most of its people and infrastructure are crammed – I can see that a devastating terrorist attack can pose a threat to that nation’s very existence. But having said that, there are not many nations on Earth that are so small – and most of them are probably not likely to be attacked in any event – that this seems a plausible risk. Thus, most forms of terrorism would seem unlikely to pose the first sort of existential risk to most nations on the planet.

On the other hand, it is easier to see how a series of attacks could push a nation to abandon or to move substantially away from the core values that once defined it. Thus, no matter how resilient a nation might be, it seems plausible to conclude that terrorism might prove an existential threat of the second sort – we can only hope that the nations most subjected to terrorism will remain resilient enough to resist the temptation to change the values they hold most dear.

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9 Responses to “Existential threats”

  1. George Mendelson February 24, 2012 at 4:02 PM #

    I too have wondered what the term “existential threat” means and how it came to be the theme song of right wing pundits who want the U.S. to remake the world in the image that they wish to project. I am not certain that “existential threat” means a threat to the very existence of a nation as you would have it. If it does, that term smacks of the clearest hyperbole. I would suggest that the term has no real meaning. It is “non-existential”. What I mean to say is that the term “existential threat” has been created out of whole cloth to scare people into believing that their are forces out there – probably “others” – who are out to destroy “us”. How would it sound, for example, if the pundits were to say “Iran poses a very real threat to the United States.” Not nearly as scary as an “existential threat”. In short, the same language factory that generates other meaningless yet politically advantageous language has created this one.
    To quote a right-wing language maven:
    “It’s not what you say that matters; it’s what they hear.”

  2. Phil Egidi February 25, 2012 at 9:25 PM #

    As an agnostic existentialist, I have watched these moral midgets cop the term and bastardize it.
    If one digs down a little into the existential philosophy, and its tenet of individual freedom and responsibility, one would see that the people now using the term have no right to it.
    It is more lingo of the long line of naysayers, neocons, et al who are trying to justify their world view because they see it slipping away. or not!

  3. Allen Thomson February 27, 2012 at 2:39 PM #

    > to me this is really stretching the use of this term

    You mean like the definition of “weapon of mass destruction”, which, in US law as enacted and practiced, kicks in at 1/4 ounce of high explosive?

  4. Joe February 28, 2012 at 10:02 PM #

    Didn’t you see the show “Jericho?” Ha ha. But seriously, could it be considered an existentialist threat if it so changes a country that the country is no longer recognizable? In that case, 9/11 was an existentialist threat. But so was the Bush administration and the Patriot act. So was deregulating the banks. And so on an so forth. An existentialist threat does not have to be military.

  5. Patrick Friel July 28, 2012 at 8:25 PM #

    There was a huge mistake that should have been immediately corrected by someone close to the creator of the term “existential threat”.

    On its face, the term, when viewed literally, refers to how a threat relates to an individual rather than an outside threat to the individual. It means more that the threat is imposed on the individual by the individual.

    As I suggested, someone should have questioned the creator of the phrase with one simple question: “Don’t you really mean “external threat”?

    Existential threat, used by anyone, will instantly have the listener stumble;finding themselves in a series of tangled questions as to, exactly, what the speaker means.

  6. Lou September 27, 2012 at 1:07 AM #

    I have also wondered about the genesis and meaning of this term, as it currently shows up repeatedly in the media. What the heck does it mean? What caused it to be so popular? Why doesn’t anyone using the term feel as if they have to explain exactly what they mean by it when they use it? Did I do a Rip Van Wrinkle, or what? So…it means a threat to the “very” existence of something? Thanks for the posts here – it is a big help overall. Seems like I can now separate the sh*t from the shine-ola.

    What, actually, is the origin of the terms – I mean, who first used it?

  7. mark November 1, 2012 at 8:45 AM #

    Might it be that Iran, Isreal and possibly USA are behaving irrationally recently because they are under the influence of “existential threat”. Iran because of US sanctions and threat of pre-emptive strike from US or Isreal, Isreal because of remarks from Iran about wiping it off the face of the Earth and the US because of 9/11 and the rising tide of world opinion against their increasing interventionism. If Dawkins is right about the selfish gene it might be that once a certain level of existential threat is reached an organism will lash out irrationally at anything, person, nation or entity that it feels is the source of the threat. If this is so we had better take immediate steps to bring the level of these existential threats to below threshold otherwise it will be too late for all of us.

  8. Sebastian November 21, 2012 at 8:06 PM #

    Quite simply, an existential threat is one that poses a threat to the very existence of an entity.
    Quick example:
    Israel striking Iran’s nuclear reactors= not existential
    Iran will survive, just without nuclear capability.

    Iran building a nuclear bomb to use against Israel= existential
    If Israel is bombed by Iran it will cease to function as a state.

  9. P James January 22, 2013 at 8:11 AM #

    Until recently I never heard the word ‘existential’ used outside of philosophy. Our language currency is so rich, but we aren’t know what the value of each of the denominations are!?

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