Insecurity Theater: the Cold War versus the GWOT

In this LATimes piece, Paul Kennedy makes the very good point that we probably shouldn’t look back fondly on the simple superpower conflict of the Cold War. It might have been facially less complicated than the War on Terror, but it was also really nasty and dangerous, and lots of people died. Lots more might have died if things had gone just a wee bit wrong.

But I think what he misses is the different ways that these two (in many ways equally amorphous) conflicts interact with human psychological quirks about security. The nice thing about the cold war, for many americans, was that except for knowing you might be vaporized at any moment, life tended to proceed pretty much as usual. Once the era of duck-and-cover was over, if you didn’t have a family member in vietnam, or latin america, or working in a defense plant, or any of the other ways that war pervaded the nation, there weren’t really any daily reminders of the danger.

And the very enormity of global thermonuclear war made it mostly impossible to think about — it was going to happen or it wasn’t, and if it did, there was nothing anyone could realistically do to survive it. So the mind simply went TILT and let the matter go. (We’re not good at evaluating risks with very low probabilities and very high costs, after all.) Well, except for a certain existential nihilism and dislike (or worship) of the authority figures who had gotten us into this mess.

The GWOT, in contrast, is much more concrete. You think about it every time you take your shoes off in an airport or reach in your pocket for a folding knife or see someone with a swarthy face. And by being more localized, acts of terrorism are also more imaginable. So it’s not just some hazy apocalypse that haunts us, but specific torn and battered bodies. And local threats are also, in principle, avoidable. So although we (as individuals) really have no idea of what we should be doing to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks, we’re reminded every day that they’re coming, and the notion that there must be some personal defense nags at us.

All that is a long-winded way of saying that, if the threat of terrorism plays into our psychological biases about risk in misleading ways, a carelessly-thought-through comparison between the GWOT and the threat of nuclear annihilation does so in spades.

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