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Threshold

I am quite aware of Thomas Friedman's 'Flat Earth,' and agree that globalization has done far more to spread wealth than just about any other historical economic influence. I know that telecommunications and the Internet have compressed the world economically and politically. I understand the interdependent ties between global regions and the nations within them. Look at isolated countries like North Korea or Talibanian Afghanistan, and it is obvious that in our time, countries that 'go it alone' face massive economic privations, often accompanied with the horror of internal repression.

In spite of the view that the globalized world will deliver long-term freedom and prosperity, I have begun to wonder if openness will be an option as we cross history's harsh thresholds, hidden in the tall grass. History always reaps the unexpected; its scythe is strident.

I will admit that I was duped by Mark Buehner's recent satire, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Mullahs and Embrace The Bomb. I see that it was satire in hindsight, and I feel sheepish in admitting I was so easily deceived. But the large wave that is barreling down upon us at the moment disarmed me from parodic sensitivity. Mr. Buehner's satire was laden with factual, convincing sources. It felt like yelling 'fire' in a theater to me because the nuclear scenarios he laid out are credible in so many minds. We live in a world on edge.

I believe we are already at a historical threshold. The first indication is utter confusion. The secular world's response to Shi'a Islam's nuclear ambition is confused, on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. There really is no cogent consensus on what to do, because Iran's challenge is a square peg that will not fit in our round hole. Responsive, credible policy is paralyzed from transnational organizations down to national governments because no political strategy promises a clear solution.

It is clear that the crisis is upon us and all roads lead to a very different world. We may not realize it, but we are not really talking about a country that is seeking nuclear arms. We are talking about a fundamentalist, ancient Islamic cult seeking nuclear arms as its ultimate sacrament. While it is necessary for a 'country' called 'Iran' to exercise its sovereignty in order to achieve the making of nuclear weapons, once achieved those weapons will respect no borders. They are being constructed to defy and nullify sovereign borders as we know them. Shi'a's nukes will proliferate like smoke in the wind; their very being is meant to unravel our world, which we have slowly conceived over centuries, at the expense of the Mullahs' world.

The headlines in our papers betray our fundamental misunderstanding of the crisis, referring to the 'Iranian nuclear program,' presuming that this is an entirely Westphalian affair. Therein lies the guise -- the mask about to be lowered. We only see things through the prism of our own perspective, which moves the crisis into high gear. To help clarify what is happening, swap 'Iran' for 'Hezbollah' and ''President Ahmadinejad' for 'Sheik Hassan Nasrallah' in the headlines about the nuclear crisis. Here's a few examples culled from the presses, so altered:

Germany, IAEA to Discuss Hezbollah Nuclear Activities

Russia Opposes Issuing Hezbollah an "Ultimatum" on its Nuclear Program

Hezbollah to Go Nuclear This Year, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah Says

UN Inspectors to Check Up on Hezbollah Nuclear Program

Looks pretty bad, doesn't it? Cultists dedicated to our destruction, answerable to no one but their vengeful god, playing with nukes? To not consider Hezbollah and Persian Shi'a as morally and strategically interchangeable is to tragically misinterpret the hallmark of our time.

A religious suicide cult funded by billions of our petrodollars obtaining weapons of mass destruction has no historical precedent. None. The rules of engagement will be completely upended. Familiar metaphors of superpower warring will be unworkable and irrelevant. Watching sovereign entities flail and dither like paper dolls before their ultimate post-sovereign challenger indicates that the threshold is beneath our feet, if we care to look down.

This is no satire. These are the stakes in 2006.

If Shi'a's radical mullahs manage to proliferate their nukes like smoke through their post-sovereign proxies, certain as-yet-to-be-named cities will unexpectedly fall through trapdoors. No one will lay claim to the atrocities. It need only happen once. If London, or Paris, or New York, or Detroit, or even Fresno falls into oblivion, our well-oiled socioeconomic global merry-go-round stops. Indefinitely. Because of the threat of mass destruction, all borders will be shut. All ports closed. All shipping stopped. Air travel halted. Since the very infrastructure of modern commerce will be the delivery device for Shi'a's nukes, that infrastructure will be indefinitely frozen solid. It won't be an option. There won't be a debate.

If the 'West' manages enough moxy to attempt a preemption of Shi'a Persia, the result will be different than their striking first, but only by degrees. The rubicon will have been crossed. The fact is, we don't know if the mullahs have nukes at this point. It is plausible to suppose that they do. It would be reckless to presume otherwise. We can nuke their nukes with all the gusto we have and not come out of it thinking that we have fully abated the threat of rogue nuclear strikes. Striking first wounds radical Shi'a, but doesn't kill it. And like a wounded bear, it will chase off into the woods for a while, only to come back with a bloody vengeance. Striking first also puts aside the idea of sovereignty, if only for self defense. The world will take that baton and run with it.

What struck me about Mr. Buehner's piece was how his idea of the absurd came off as plausible, depending on one's view of the threat's enormity. And even then, the most aggressive preemptive strike against Persian Shi'a still leaves us stranded between the world that we know -- with largely open borders that facilitate free trade and expansive prosperity -- and the next world, where borders are defined by padlocks, moats and walls, not openness -- just like the good old days of sovereignty, when borders meant 'stop, go no further.' In a world of nuclear trapdoors, there will be a lock-down of borders to secure their inviolability. Globalism, transnationalism and our jet-setting postmodern lifestyle presume that we can have our cake and eat it too: National borders exist to contain political, social and economic zones while cultures, religions and civilizations are free to transgress sovereignty ad infinitum. That wonderfully open-minded and trusting view of the world is on the chopping block, whether we attack first or Shi'a attacks first.

As far as whether or not to strike first or wait to be struck, I guess I am in the 'Strike First' camp. Spin the bottle -- better to take the initiative than sit around and wait for the enemy's blow. But I am not deluded in thinking that our marvelously open world will survive this crisis unchanged. What we have now is historically unprecedented, and incredibly fragile. We hang by a thread.

After the 3/11 Madrid bombings, Lewis �Atiyyatullah, claiming to represent al-Qaeda, said:

The international system built-up by the West since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse; and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state.

Al Qaeda is Sunni, not Shi'a, but that may be a difference that will be temporarily patched-up to achieve a common, pan-Islamist goal. Mr. �Atiyyatullah is right. Our open system is not impervious. It is, in fact, quite pervious. How we engage being in a closed world will be most telling to our character as free people.

I will end this dour essay on an optimistic note. If the world becomes closed in the name of self-preservation, some countries will fare better than others in isolation. Though all modern countries are thoroughly ensnared in global economics, if ripped away, some countries have enough national will, freedom, natural resources and innovative citizens to positively reinvent themselves in a closed planet. I think the United States can weather isolation better than most countries, should isolation be foisted upon us.

I am not suggesting isolation as some kind of regressive policy option that we can choose; I am suggesting that it might be the only option left, whoever pulls the nuclear trigger. It will be incredibly painful to endure, but perhaps out of the transition we will reclaim our sense of self-worth. Our history of independence is still longer than our history of dependence. Out of all the uncertainty of this time, relying on our indomitable free spirit is the one possible future I can still imagine.


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