Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Day the Lights Went Out

I read some years ago that we could be crippled as a nation by detonation of a nuclear bomb in the sub-stratosphere, not all that far up. The electro-magnetic disturbance would effectively put us out of action and I have worried since that time, not so much about nuclear attack, but about our increasing dependency on computers.


Now comes Senator Jon Kyl, not exactly a household name, but the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is no small job.  A name has been put to this disturbance, electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP.  Senator Kyl suggests in an editorial that it doesn’t take much sophistication to chunk a nuclear device a couple miles up into the air, which is all it would take.  Scud missiles are cheap, readily available and capable. Any old rusted-out tramp steamer would suffice as a platform and international waters would be close enough. El Qaeda owns a bunch of such vessels.


Pretty scary.


So, okay, you say. Damned inconvenient and you remember the last northeast power outage and the way it screwed everything up for a week or so. Not this time, baby. An EMP event at this stage of our preparedness would put us out of power for a matter of years, if not permanently. And here we’ve been going along with Tom Ridge making us take our shoes off at airports and thinking it meant something.


The short list of life without electricity:


  • Panic as we wait for news.  No radio, no TV, no way for government to communicate.

  • After a week, most all food and medicines are gone because they come by truck, trucks run on gas and gas is pumped by electricity. Run out the tank, then leave your car by the side of the road.

  • All commerce stops for the same reasons. No work to go to even if you could get there.

  • Water stops flowing. Toilets don’t flush, no shower in the morning, no bottled water to drink.

  • By the end of the first week, we've all stopped being in this together and anarchy takes over as the hungry and thirsty roam the streets breaking into whatever can be broken into, taking what they want, including what you have.

  • Tens of thousands begin to die, turning to hundreds of thousands, turning to millions.  Disease ravages the starving and everyone is starving.

  • Suddenly our quiet suburban neighborhood has become Blade Runner.

  • There is no contact with anyone not in walking distance and it’s not safe to walk. Husbands away on business never return.

  • The strong begin to kill the weak.

Society depends upon its support structure and we’re a long way from horse-and-buggy days.  In the scant century since those times we have become entirely dependent upon third-party sources for every form of sustenance, transport, communication, commerce and entertainment. Think about thatEvery source!  We have no garden, no well, no horse nor even a stove to heat or cook with wood.  We are no longer conversant with even the basic skills of survival


As Kyl points out in his editorial, the Sept 11th Commission said that our greatest failure was that of imagination.  We couldn’t conceive of someone flying aircraft into our tall buildings. 


That failure pales by our current reluctance to face both the consequence and the necessary preventive actions to recover in the event of an EMP attack.