The “D” Word I-The Very Idea of Deterrence: Founded in Fear

Beginning a series on the very idea of “deterrence”

If you have been with me so far, and even if you haven’t, you will be willing, I hope, to entertain the following propositions:

  • That, as General Colin Powell said in 2010, nuclear weapons “cannot be used” for military purposes.
  • That what President Obama said in his speech in Prague in April 2009 is true–that “to accept the spread of nuclear weapons is to accept that they will someday be used.”
  • That what Obama said in Prague should be seen to apply not just to the spread but to the existence of nuclear weapons. That is, if we accept the continued existence of nuclear weapons, we are accepting that they will someday be used. 
  • That the use of any nuclear weapon opens the door to the use of any nuclear weapon, including the ones we call “strategic” that are not strategic in any military sense but useful only for terror and omnicide.
  • That once the door to the use of nuclear weapons has been opened, it is not clear how it is to be closed except after the most appalling destruction, the ultimate consequences of which are unknown and unknowable.

If we accept these propositions, or even if we think there is a chance they might be true, we have now to go on to ask:

  • Why do the world still have nuclear weapons in it? Any nuclear weapons?

The answer that immediately outs, with no pause for thought, is


The “D” word, once uttered, almost always concludes the discussion. Here it won’t.

The starting point for us will be the recognition that when it comes to deterrence, fear is the foundation.

To deter someone is to use fear (terrere, from Latin) to try to turn aside action. Here’s some of what follows from that fact.

From the back and bottom of the brain flashes forth the message: “Something to fear here.”

Now what? Fight? Or flight?

Flight (or, to give the action a more positive valence, avoidance, or escape, or artful dodging) may be the better option. I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. When I’m asked if I’ve ever “used” it, I say, “Yes, several times, by walking around things.” Before, I might have thought I needed to walk into them, to prove something to myself perhaps.

A proverb from Middle English pertains: Well figt þat wel fligt. “He fights well that flies well.”

But “flight” can create a threat. Police officers can see it as evidence of guilt. The hunting bear may see it as evidence of vulnerability. Someone approaches whom you find threatening—maybe because of the color of their skin. You cross the street. The person approaching sees you do this and realizes you are afraid, gets angry, or sees you now as vulnerable.

Flight, or avoidance, is not always an option. Or it may be a practical option, but not one we feel we can choose for ourselves, for any number of reasons. A sense of honor, fellow feeling, duty, a commitment to doing one’s job.

For me, there was that one other time.

Fight, or at least the threat of it, may be required.

Some fights, many fights, seem simply reflexive. Not anything chosen. Mere reactions. Like the fear itself. The action of a snake that has been stepped on.

As a way of avoiding “fight” that does not entail “flight,” deterrence may enter the picture.

When we hope to deter, we hope to create in the threatening other a fear that will turn aside the threat we have perceived that has produced fear in us.

Perhaps because it involves an offer to fight, deterrence can be viewed as a “tough” approach to dealing with threats. It is important not to forget, though, that those who are trying to turn aside an action by instilling fear—by threatening to fight—are doing so because they themselves have become fearful. Someone less in the grip of fear, more able to imagine the possibilities, might realize that another kind of avoidance, not one that works through threat, is a better option.

In Juneau, Alaska I was given advice once on what to do if I ran into a bear on the trail. It was a bit tricky. First, I needed to assess whether

1. I had surprised the bear, or

2. the bear was hunting me.

If I had surprised the bear, I was told, I should make myself as small and unthtreatening as I could and back away slowly. If the bear was hunting me, I should make myself as big and loud and threatening as I could, no match for a bear obviously, but maybe something that could now seem to the bear not worth the trouble.

I resolved that if I ran into a bear I would try 1. first and if that didn’t work 2. “Fight” came in a very poor third.

Of course I could also arm myself with a gun, one big enough to kill a bear. I decided not to. It would change the way I would be in the world during my sojourn in that beautiful place. For the worse, it seemed to me. I would be less present to that world.

Even if I were armed, I’d try 1. and then 2. Having to go to a gun would be to me a sadness.

Leaving bears aside, as here we are able to do, let’s explore some of the other implications of fear being first.

If we are feeling threatened and fearful, our fears may be perceived by a third party as reasonable or unreasonable. Fears thought to be unreasonable, if they can’t be reasoned away, are called “phobias.” They are real fears, of course. It’s the threats perceived that aren’t real.

People might have reasonable or unreasonble fears of any number of things: snakes, or heights, or social occasions, or socialism. All those things might offer actual threats, just not necessarily. But try helping someone with a phobia by reasoning with them. With phobias, the fears are not just unreasonable, but unreasoning.

Fear is not famous for helping us see clearly what’s before us. An actual threat may or may not be present. The police officer responding to a call sees the cell phone in the young man’s hand as a gun.

Before the evolution of our brains made thought possible, it probably was better to err on the side of being fearful even if there was no good reason to be.

The dove flies off when you only turn and look at it.

Next: The D Word II: The Foundations of Fear During the Cold War