Government & Politics

Digital doomsday: No faith in America, Newt?

Save your files!

Two power outages delayed the Monday Night Football game between Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The temporary blackouts were an embarrassment, to be sure, but I cringed the most when the ESPN broadcasters kept asking their reporters at the stadium whether panic ensued when the lights went off. As if that’s the natural expectation, among adults, when the lights fail.
In an odd way, it reminded me of a panel discussion I attended at the “Words & Music” literary conference in the French Quarter last month. Author Ted Mooney was on the panel, and he shocked me when he used the threat of a devastating nuclear attack to push his argument against … e-books and digital data storage.

I’ll admit, Mooney caught me off-guard. I didn’t expect a panel titled “Life & Literature in the Global Village” to conclude with an apocalyptic bang. But Mooney was in no mood to assuage fears.  We don’t live in a global village, he said. “Global, yes. Village, no.”

The author of “The Same River Twice” emphasized the fragility of our increasingly digital media. He said an e-book reader is not an improvement over a library of hardcovers. Then in his closing remarks Mooney exceeded his allotted time and described an alarming scenario in which a single nuclear bomb could disable data networks throughout the U.S. and lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions of Americans.

For example, Mooney said, a North Korean submarine off the Florida Keys could launch a nuclear missile set to detonate 150 miles over the center of the U.S., and the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from the explosion would fry all the computer circuits and hard drives throughout the country. It would paralyze our computer-operated infrastructure systems, and leave us without electricity, telecommunications, and databases. Financial markets and businesses would be crippled. Mooney went on to suggest that social conditions would quickly devolve into chaos. He claimed members of Congress and three-star generals forecast that over 200 million Americans would perish during the chaotic first year after an EMP attack. Apparently, these leaders don’t foresee a graceful mass transition from Facebook to foraging.

While Mooney laid out this dark vision, I casually turned around to gauge reactions in the Hotel Monteleone ballroom. The audience was mostly senior citizens, and no one seemed shocked. They just continued to listen and sip their morning coffee. No one signalled disapproval with a skeptical look or snort.  Had they remotely expected to hear this?

Maybe they were just being polite, or maybe they were all supporters of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, a Tulane graduate now running for president, fashions himself as an expert on EMP (among many other topics). Gingrich claims he has studied the EMP threat “for decades,” and has incorporated EMP warnings into his presidential campaign. As The New York Times recently reported:

Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential hopeful, wants you to know that as commander in chief he is ready to confront one of the most nightmarish of doomsday scenarios: a nuclear blast high above the United States that would instantly throw the nation into a dark age.

“Millions would die in the first week alone,” he wrote in the foreword to a science-fiction thriller published in 2009 that describes an imaginary EMP attack on the United States. A number of scientists say they consider Mr. Gingrich’s alarms far-fetched.

The article counters Gingrich’s claims with reference to scientific rebuttals (more here). Most of these rebuttals argue that EMP is too unlikely to justify national worry. Rockets with nuclear tips are too complex for terrorists, and nation-states are deterred from EMP attacks by the threat of a counterattack. The article pulls some quotes that cast doubt on the wide-ranging claims of EMP alarmists. The physics of EMP are uncertain, as are the exact ramifications. The most puzzling part of the Times article was a quote from a military official who discounted the possibility of a missile attack all-together. He said our missile defense systems would shoot down any rockets before they detonated. John Avarosis at Americablog noted that such a confident statement implies our current missile defense system is airtight, which would be news.

Like Mooney, Gingrich isn’t persuaded by critics of EMP alarmists, and prefers to outline dystopic scenarios to his audiences.

[Gingrich] referred to the apocalyptic novel “One Second After,” written by a friend and co-author of his historical novels, William R. Forstchen. The book describes an electromagnetic pulse attack on America, conjuring a world in which cars, airplanes, cellphones and refrigerators all die, and gangs of barbarians spring to life.

I hate it when that happens.

Mooney put his thumb on the scale when he invoked the apocalypse at the end of a literature panel to push his argument about the fragility of digital media. His tone was matter-of-fact, but his claims were outlandish. It was little different than Gingrich’s lectures about EMP on the campaign stump, when he cloaks alarmist words in a scholarly tone. This summer, The Heritage Foundation think tank joined in the fun, advocating for a National EMP Awareness Day. “It’s time,” they say. (I presume Heritage discourages celebrating EMP Day with fireworks.)

Since South Louisiana has endured two big disasters since 2005, I’m not blithe about worst-case scenarios. We shouldn’t ignore them nor should we let them dominate our thinking. I haven’t the expertise to tell you the true risk of an EMP attack, but I’d bet it’s extraordinarily remote, compared to other scenarios. (The threat of an accidental nuclear attack, for example.)

I figure terrorists would try to destroy a city with a nuclear weapon rather than detonate it high in the air to create a power outage. And our ability to quickly trace and respond to an EMP attack would deter most nation states. (Mooney picked a good example with North Korea, though. I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned Kim Jong Il had died, apparently without some sick deathbed order to commence a nuclear attack after he passed. And I’m reasonably sure the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree: Heir apparent “Lil’ Kim” would go out with a total attack, as well, not some EMP attempt. “If I die all of you should too,” as the Dead Kennedys sang in “Gone with my Wind.”)

What rankles me most is the assumptions behind the EMP disaster scenario: how we respond to radically changed circumstances. Basically, the equation is: no circuits, no civilization. They presume we are so soft and scared that we’ll either die or turn into barbarians before we can repair a damaged grid.

At root, this talk seems geared to appeal to the survivalist fringe, and it reveals an awfully pessimistic view of Americans. If our way of life is suddenly set back a century — for whatever reason — why should we assume our national character instantly evaporates? A lot of the people who indulge in dark fantasies like EMP are the same ones who talk about American exceptionalism. They endlessly intone about the principles of the Constitution and the moral grounding provided by “our” Judeo-Christian heritage. They claim that’s what makes this country great. Yet, in the next breath they cite forecasts and books that basically say our civilization is dependent on working circuits. If we lose them, suddenly we become barbarian scavengers whokill each other and neglect the weak.

It reminds me of the willingness to believe false reports during the Katrina and Federal Flood aftermath. Everyone “knew” that the city was in total chaos: roving gangs, widespread murder, shots at helicopters, raped babies. Those sensational stories were seared into the nation’s consciousness as they watched the desperation unfold on TV. But ninety-nine percent of them were false. New Orleanians were slandered by their elected leaders, who promoted false rumors on national TV in the wake of an emergency.  This fueled an impulse among many to believe the worst about conditions in a predominantly black city during a crisis. (I’m not saying the circumstances weren’t hellish, and that everyone reacted with stoic endurance. But the brute fact of the matter is that the refrigerated semis brought in to haul away “hundreds” of homicide victims went unfilled.)

Making a bad situation worse, the reports about heroic New Orleanians never made a national impression during the crisis. For example, there was a man named “Radio” who lifted morale in a stinking dark Superdome by leading dances and celebration. Ex-Marine John Keller protected and helped 244 in a Mid-City apartment. Kimberly Roberts’ heroic 9th ward neighbor paddled people to safety, as did Abdulrahman Zeitoun in Broadmoor.  People like this should’ve been the story of Katrina — not unconfirmed rumors about “savages.” Fortunately, they have received some belated notice in recent years.

Ultimately, dire EMP scenarios are really about our fears of one another, rather than our fears of a pulse disabling our infrastructure. What will prevail in extreme circumstances — civilization or chaos? I’d prefer that our leaders espouse a faith in American heroism, rather than stoke fears of “barbarism.” Those are the same sorts of unfounded fears that the country indulged in, to New Orleans’ detriment, during the aftermath of the flood.


Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • I remember during The Flood that there wasn’t a cell phone tower within 200 mi or so. People were freaking out pretty badly about that.

    Then after I excaped to BR I started finding these lost souls blogging from the coast on dial-up hard lines.

    Hard times for the digital world.

    Solar chargers might’ve helped these e-book folks, but there was no transmission infrastructure to support it.

    I know that we shall rue the day we finally kick printing presses.

    Nice post, mon.

  • <>
    A few responses. First, I, too, hate it when gangs of barbarians spring to life. Next, the “leaders” (or power-possessors) who stoke fears of barbarism — or terrorism — are usually the same ones who cut funding for adequate disaster prevention and response, or, if in the news media, the same ones who defend or deflect attention from the cutting of services. Lastly, I was at the Cafe Brasil one New Year’s Eve around 1998 when shortly after midnight the power went out on Frenchmen Street, and — this is so New Orleans — the musicians did not miss a beat. The electric guitars weren’t good for much, but the percussion and horns just kept going, and the audience kept dancing, candles came out, lighters were lit, and the rhythm kept a-going for at least 20, 30 minutes. No atrocities were reported, no screams, no blood on the floor. Rather, the band played on. So will humankind. But not with any help from Newt and his kind.

  • Tim

    Excellent observations as per usual, Oyster.

    Gingrich is just drumming up fear because that’s what wins elections.

    Without a doubt, 2005 proved that humans will not instantaneously devolve into cannibals when the grid goes down. As you state, the real story of humanity is courage under fire repeated through the ages.

    And of course, I always love it when an intelligent writer quotes the Dead Kennedys. Thanks for that!



  • Tim, you ignorant slut.
    You weren’t here when your Corps levees failed us.
    People did indeed go barbaric, or the modern warfare equivalent, when everything broke down.
    A thug with a jawbone is no less dangerous than a thug with an AK.
    I really wish you people would stop trying to romanticize what happened during the Flood 8/29/05.
    It was not at all your fantasy of Courage Under Fire.
    I was here.

  • Great post. Just because the lights go out doesn’t mean civilization collapses (and you get the right to shoot anything that moves).

    As someone who knows how to calculate flux, I can tell you it takes an enormous charge to do something along the lines of what Newt has in mind. Starfish prime was at least a Megaton in yield.
    The best North Korea can do is cobble together some very primitive HEU bombs of low single/double digit kilotons. Even if they could get one launched and detonated at the right altitude without fizzling (doubtful), it’d be too puny to do much more than dim the lights in Kansas City.

    There is a little bit of legit concern on EMP:
    The EMP is not an issue, but radioactive fallout is a big one. Per SciAm:
    Also, from the Starfish Prime article:
    “These man-made radiation belts eventually crippled one-third of all satellites in low earth orbit. “
    You’d be genuinely astonished at how dependent we are on satellites. The GPS signals are used in all sorts of unusual places, for instance, timing of bank transfers (timestamping).

    Fortunately, there’s a simple, quick fix: eLORAN:
    For less than the cost of a single GPS launch, we can have a redundant, hardened system. Unfortunately, it’s caught up in Tea Party Politics:
    Only the British are keeping the system alive for now.

  • Worst-case scenarios can be met with effective responses only if you think about them ahead of time. However, Newt should well know that the collapse of Civilization with said springing barbarians does not accompany the loss of power to his favorite vibrator. The Nazis proved that quite effectively. Very tech-savvy those boys and girls were and are.

    Yet worst case scenarios do sometimes play out, surprising all sides with their outcomes. Steam punk, anyone?