On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies 

The Private Ownership of Nuclear Weapons


A Libertarian acquaintance of mine recalls how, some while ago, he had the unusual good fortune to be a guest on a TV talk show, in which he had fun running rings round the pathetically conventional excuse for "reason" used by his host; but that said host was highly skilled in the arts of showmanship and scorn. Having come off second best to my friend for the bulk of the show as Mike showed how and why no peaceful activity should be forbidden, he had up his sleeve what he thought was a trump card for a final, victorious flourish.

Fortunately for Mike, guest as well as host could see the studio clock, so each knew how many seconds of conversation remained. And at just thirty seconds to go, Mine Host produced his trump: "Mike, is it then the libertarian position that private individuals should be free to own nuclear weapons?"

Now, that's a tough question for those of us who value liberty, and there is absolutely no way it can be done justice in 20 seconds flat. So the host's plot was to leave Mike floundering all over the floor, then cut him off at the 5-second point with some such condescending remark as "Sorry, folks we're out of time, as Mike the Sucker tries to tell us what libertarians think about the private ownership of nuclear weapons. Good night until next week..."

What he did not know was that Mike is unusually nimble on his feet - a rare gift. Hearing the question, he recognized what was going on, and deliberately went quiet, as if in deep thought, and stayed that way for 15 whole seconds; an eternity, on a live broadcast. Then he said, quote, "Well, I guess that really depends on what kind of a neighborhood you live in!" so bringing the house down and leaving his adversary just 5 seconds to sign off and suffer the ridicule.

Well, not many of us are as cool before a TV camera as Mike is, and here I do have a bit more time than 20 seconds to answer what is, in this setting, a very reasonable question: if it's okay for anyone to own guns without government permission, then why not nukes as well? - or more particularly, if my belief in liberty leads me to own nuclear weapons, doesn't that ridiculous result cast doubt on the whole freedom idea, including the right to own guns?

Out of the Bottle

First, let me agree with everyone who abhors nuclear weapons; which is, I hope, everyone. They are probably the most terrible thing mankind has ever invented. And let's not forget that it was government that caused them to be invented; our own Federal one, while in deadly competition with two other governments half a century ago. Yet true though that is, nukes would have been invented; the physics had been done, the theory was already written, before WW-II began.

So the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be returned; nuclear power is here to stay, like it or not. It can't be de-invented. And one of the fascinating questions for the next Century is, will governments continue to oppress and enrage individuals, and if so will some of those individuals learn how to make and explode suitcase nukes, instead of Ryder trucks full of fertilizer?

But the one before us here and now is, whether any of us should be free to own these terrible weapons, if the inclination should happen upon us. My answer is Yes, certainly; and for two reasons. First, prohibition would be irrelevant and ineffective, and second, it would be highly dangerous.

It would be irrelevant because (like gun prohibition) if some malefactor is set upon holding the world to nuclear ransom, he will not be deterred by a piece of paper telling him not to. It's ludicrous to imagine that he would!

And it would be highly dangerous because if the enforcement leads to an armed confrontation, and if the suspect reckons that all is lost, what is he likely to do? - he is likely to hit the button, so vaporizing several hundred thousand of his innocent neighbors along with his miserable self.

How, then, can one imagine preventing the terrible possibilities of some desperado doing exactly that: holding a city to ransom with a suitcase nuke?


The answer must be to remove any possible motivation; to take away the provocation, to restore instead a world of opportunity.

After all, for nearly 100 years it's not been hard to buy canisters of chlorine gas, nor to rig them up so as to poison large numbers of city dwellers. Aside from a religious nut in Tokyo, why has not some desperado done it? - not because it was unlawful, but because the motivation was missing! And the same is true of nukes. Laws against them are unnecessary, because the malefactor can achieve his ends with greater chance of success and less chance of blowing himself up along with his victim, by using other means. How can we be sure? Because for fifty years, that's even been true of governments! Yes, they have littered the Planet with 40,000 nuclear missiles available to any madman who can steal some, but no, not one of them has been used for real.

The only nuclear bombs exploded in anger were Truman's, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and he did that because the Japanese could not strike back. Much more powerful bombs were developed a few years later, but from 1950 on that monopoly was lost; no Cold Warrior dared drop one for real because he, too, would be nuked in revenge a few minutes later.

True, the Feds dug themselves a cave in the Virginia mountains as the Cold War warmed up, so that they who ordered the strike could survive while the rest of us were destroyed; but even government people, see, were rational enough to know that even that kind of survival would be worthless - that on emerging, they would have nothing left to enjoy, nobody to rule. That's the one and only "good" consequence of the invention of The Bomb; large-scale, all-out war has been removed from the list of options available to governments. So it has from lesser criminals too, and for the same reason.

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