Fire and Fury: The Pitfall of Self-Righteous Absolutes

AtomicWar0201

“Atomic War!” #2, Page 1, December, 1952. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . . for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1, 4. NRSV)

Mr. Trump’s bellicose “fire and fury” rhetoric of August 8, 2017 (which he escalated two days later) promised to visit upon North Korea a “power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if Kim Jong Un should make “any more threats to the United States.” Trump’s “apocalyptic” imagery rendered the prospect of nuclear conflagration in familiar, biblical terms—Revelation’s depiction of the complete and final destruction of the world. He framed the crisis publicly, in language he had uttered privately to aides, as the ultimate confrontation of good and evil.

It is possible, of course, that Mr. Trump at some point will abandon his apocalyptic language. It wouldn’t be the first time he distanced himself from previous threats and promises. But a pledge of fire and fury is an especially dangerous ploy, if ploy it is. It exacerbates an already fraught situation and undermines our ability to imagine a plausible alternative to confrontation.

The archetypal imagery of nuclear apocalypse aggravates the already MAD world of mutual assured destruction. Within this mythic framework there is no good option short of the evil enemy’s unlikely capitulation, a kind of deus ex machina. The bad options, each of which is identified by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic, range from initiating a preventive war, to undertaking a series of limited military attacks, to eliminating Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. The final option, Bowden allows, is “the hardest pill to swallow—acquiescing to Kim’s developing the weapons he wants, while continuing efforts to contain his ambition.”

Bowden carefully analyzes why all-out preventative war, limited military strikes, and “decapitation” are all very bad choices. Briefly, the US could technically “win” an all-out war with North Korea but not swiftly or decisively or without a ghastly sacrifice of millions of civilian and military lives, leaving a residue of nuclear and chemical pollution. North Korea is a formidable enemy. Limited military strikes could easily be perceived by North Korea as the beginning of an all-out war. It would be difficult to prevent and contain escalation. Decapitating (i.e., killing or capturing) Kim would be next to impossible, a huge gamble fraught with disastrous consequences, including the possibility of trigging an automatic military response and/or Kim’s replacement by an equally bad or worse regime.

That leaves acceptance of North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear-armed ICBMs as a done deal, which means, Bowden observes, “living with things only slightly worse than they are right now. . . . The world is already accustomed to dealing with a North Korea capable of sowing unthinkable mayhem.” The US lived throughout the Cold War with the “far, far greater threat” of “complete destruction. . . . The threat of nuclear attack is a feature of the modern world.” For now, North Korea is constrained by the MAD logic of mutual annihilation. With time, and a “proper framework for disarmament—the right collection of incentives and disincentives to render the building of such a weapon a detriment and a waste,” Kim’s now isolated regime might eventually decide to downgrade or abandon nukes in its own best interest.

Why is acceptance such a hard pill to swallow? Because it is frightening (and galling) to think of an enemy like Kim with the nuclear wherewithal to strike us. He is, in our mythical worldview, the archetypal mad evildoer.

Mr. Trump’s spontaneous outburst reveals a cultural limitation for coping with a recalcitrant world: thinking in absolutes about good and evil and projecting all the evil onto the antagonist leaves no room for the protagonist to engage in thoughtful reflection and self evaluation. Pure Good versus Utter Evil is an uncompromising formula for righteous fury and nuclear hellfire.

Hence, Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Mr. Trump’s evangelical advisers who recently laid hands on the President in the Oval Office, believes that God has empowered Mr. Trump and insists that Romans 13 gives the President the moral authority to use whatever means necessary, including war, to “stop evil,” specifically to “take out Kim Jong Un.”

RLI

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