The federal government is doing something right now that is exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. It is forgetting to think dark. It is forgetting to imagine the unimaginable.
Governments deal in data. People in government see a collection of data as something to be used, manipulated or ignored, but whatever they do with it, it’s real. It’s numbers on a page. You can point to them.
To think dark, on the other hand, takes imagination—and something more.
As adults living in the world, we know some things. As Murphy taught us, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. As the journalist Harrison Salisbury said, in summing up what he’d learned in a lifetime observing history, “Expect the unexpected.” As JFK taught us, “There’s always some poor son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word”—someone in the field who doesn’t know what’s going on and does exactly the wrong thing. As Ronald Reagan once said in conversation, man has never invented a weapon he didn’t ultimately use. And as life has taught us since 9/11, we live in a dangerous age and the dangers aren’t over, if they will ever be.
When you think dark, you’re often and inescapably thinking with your gut, a vulgar way of referring to a certainty that lives somewhere between your spirit, soul and intellect. Your gut knows things your brain can’t assert as fact because they’re not facts, not yet. It can take guts to listen to your gut.
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Right now the federal government is considering closing or consolidating hundreds of military bases throughout the U.S. A government commission is meeting this week to vote on specific base-closing proposals in the Pentagon’s plan. Yesterday they voted to close big bases like Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Fort Gillem, Ga. (They voted to save the naval base in Groton, Conn.)
The Pentagon says this huge and historic base-closing plan will save $50 billion over the next two decades. They may be right. But it’s a bad plan anyway, a bad idea, and exactly the wrong thing to do in terms of future and highly possible needs.
The Pentagon has some obvious logic on its side—we have a lot of bases, and they cost a lot of money—and numbers on paper. They have put forward their numbers on savings, redundancies, location and obsolescence.
But they’re wrong. What they ought to do, and what the commission reviewing the Pentagon’s plan ought to do, is sit down and think dark.
In the rough future our country faces, bad things will happen. We all know this. It’s hard to imagine some of those things on a beautiful day with the sun shining and the markets full, but let’s imagine anyway.
Among the things we may face over the next decade, as we all know, is another terrorist attack on American soil. But let’s imagine the next one has many targets, is brilliantly planned and coordinated. Imagine that there are already 100 serious terror cells in the U.S., two per state. The members of each cell have been coming over, many but not all crossing our borders, for five years. They’re working jobs, living lives, quietly planning.
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Imagine they’re planning that on the same day in the not-so-distant future, they will set off nuclear suitcase bombs in six American cities, including Washington, which will take the heaviest hit. Hundreds of thousands may die; millions will be endangered. Lines will go down, and to make it worse the terrorists will at the same time execute the cyberattack of all cyberattacks, causing massive communications failure and confusion. There will be no electricity; switching and generating stations will also have been targeted. There will be no word from Washington; the extent of the national damage will be as unknown as the extent of local damage is clear. Daily living will become very difficult, and for months—food shortages, fuel shortages.
Let’s make it worse. On top of all that, on the day of the suitcase nukings, a half dozen designated cells will rise up and assassinate national, state and local leaders. There will be chaos, disorder, widespread want; law-enforcement personnel, or what remains of them, will be overwhelmed and outmatched.
Impossibly grim? No, just grim. Novelistic? Sure. But if you’d been a novelist on Sept. 10, 2001, and dreamed up a plot in which two huge skyscrapers were leveled, the Pentagon was hit, and the wife of the solicitor general of the United States was desperately phoning him from a commercial jet that had been turned into a missile, you would have been writing something wild and improbable that nonetheless happened a day later.
And all this of course is just one scenario. The madman who runs North Korea could launch a missile attack on the United States tomorrow, etc. There are limitless possibilities for terrible trouble.
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So we are imagining America being forced to fight for its survival on its streets. How does this get us to base closings? On the day the big terrible thing happens there will of course be shock and chaos. People will feel the need for protection—for the feeling of protection and for the thing itself. They will want and need American troops nearby and they will want and need American military bases up and operating to help maintain some semblance of order. The very presence, the very fact of these bases will help in the big recovery.
That’s what all these bases are going to be needed for. To help us survive a very bad time.
We don’t need these bases for sentimental reasons. We don’t need them because local congressmen want the jobs and money they provide. We don’t need them because we must never change the structure and operations of our defense system. We need them because someday they may very well help us survive as a nation. Seems worth the price, doesn’t it?
This of course is pure guessing on my part. I can’t prove it with data. My gut says that when things turn dark, we will need all the help we can get.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, if we think in such an apocalyptic fashion, the bad guys have already won.” But that’s not a thought, it’s a slogan. Think dark and you’re prepared for darkness, and preparation will be half the battle.
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Each day each of us should—must—move forward individually with hope, faith and optimism. Why not? Life is good and God is real. But in terms of public policy we should make our plans based on the assumption that thinking dark is thinking safe.
Because if it can go wrong it will go wrong, because man has never invented a weapon he did not ultimately use, and because the beginning of wisdom is to expect the unexpected.
President Bush and Congress are to review and either accept or reject the final Pentagon/commission plan in November. They should reject it. Leave it where it is. Think dark.