The Family Atomicson September 6, 2007 at 5:40 pm
Yesterday, it was revealed that the Air Force moved some nukes over the U.S., and reportedly did so by accident. This caused a flurry of reactions after these facts were leaked, along with the expected speculation over what signal this was meant to send to whom. The obvious message was “we’re capable of doing/screwing over anything,” and the recipient was all mankind. But the blogosphere has been trying to tease nuance out of broken arrows.
While we’re speculating, though, the incident brought to mind an urban legend I heard in the seventies. As I recall it was an anecdote related to the branch of JFK assassination theory that postulated Lyndon Johnson working with the mafia to perform the evil deed. So we’re already way down the speculation turnpike, here. Just for period authenticity, I’m not even going to Google for it. That’s not how urban legendizing was done back then.
Anyway, the story goes that LBJ wanted to reward the don who performed the hit, and as President, he could offer just about anything. The don knew just what he wanted: “I want an atom bomb.” When Johnson reacted incredulously, the don emphasized that he just wanted one, not even one of the big cobalt H-bombs. A little Hiroshima-sized one would suffice.
Back in the real world, about a year after this apocryphal conversation would have taken place, Frank Herbert saw his novel Dune published for the first time. One of the great classics of 20th Century science fiction, Dune is best remembered as a kind of primer for high intrigue in a technological age.
Others have commented in greater and more scholarly length about the novel’s parallels to our times: a precious and vital resource only found in a land of religious tribes; a shaky central government allowing private interests to wield their own power centers and armies; trust and honor constantly tricked and overthrown by venal treachery. What’s relevant to this current business is one feature of the work, the family atomics. Essentially, each House of any worth in Herbert’s space empire had its own set of atomic weapons. Their function was both deterrent against equally-armed opponents, as in the contemporary world, and as a basic fact of raw power, giving the Great Houses their right to rule.
Herbert threw in a few sci-fi plot devices, some cleverer than others, to further the intrigue. Dune’s unique spice allowed humans to replace interstellar transport computers; lasers and energy shields exploded both opponents upon contact, so swords and guns were again popular; noble concubines were a secret sorority of superwomen. Dune is a byword for subtle and deadly intrigue, but in writing about the family atomics, Herbert was still a man of his time. Even in this tale of unbridled power pursuing vendetta, his imagination only allowed him to the threshhold of true madness, not beyond.
Hero Paul Atreides, in a final attack on his foes the Emperor and the wicked House Harkonnen, calls upon his family atomics– but law forbids him from using them against people. It was stated that the other Houses would drive an offending party into exile (how? with control of Dune and nukes?) and so this ancient ‘law’ was scrupulously followed. At the very least, any family nuking humans would be reviled forever. So Paul nukes a lifeless cliff wall, allowing a violent desert storm to sweep away the opposing armies.
The nuclear arsenal of the United States has been subject to a blizzard of laws and treaties, but of course, it comes down to whether enough of the people tending them care that these laws be followed. Most importantly, enough of them have to give a damn over whether they remain the property of the people of the United States.
Whatever tales, urban or otherwise, have been spun about George Bush’s retirement to a vast tract of Paraguay , I’ve long been concerned that while much of the country’s wealth was being openly cashiered for his pals, there was also the nagging possibility that our own WMD might become privately available. You know, on the side. Like a lot of horrific ideas I get, I’m reluctant to voice them, just on the extreme off-chance they “come true”, i.e. give the wrong people some new evil to try. Writers traditionally leave real-world crime to law enforcement–thinking through crimes can even lead to their prevention. However, in times when when laws don’t get enforced, ideas truly become weapons themselves.
But then this recent incident with the wandering nukes came up, and I recalled that old Johnson yarn, and of course, Frank Herbert’s contribution. So it’s not like it’s something that couldn’t have already been on the minds of certain people since at least 1965. Who knows which families might already have their own private stashes of hellfire?
But of course, we’re way way down along the speculation superhighway, here. Urban legends and science fiction.
Oh, I didn’t finish telling you. The murderous LBJ of the story refused to give the don a bomb. That’s where the tale ends. Even as a wild urban legend, the story wasn’t allowed to imagine the possibilities of a President saying yes.
(This post expands upon a comment at DailyKos.)