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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.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...