Are We in a Time of Existential Threats?

By: | April 17, 2017

One of the ideas that I believe it’s most important to think about is the nature of an existential threat. Since the dawn of the first great empires, various economic, political and social factors have had the possibility to extinguish civilizations and entire peoples. The Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Caliphate, for example, all faced internal and external threats that threatened their survival and eventually brought about their demise.

An external threat, such as a powerful military adversary, is usually not enough to destroy a dominant empire or nation. Instead, it is through the weakening of internal structures of society that the decline of a civilization most often begins.

The Second World War ended with the victory of the Allied nations, ending 25 years of Nazi domination. The Allies also conquered an even older empire in their defeat of Imperial Japan. The largest conflict in history disrupted the American way of life and permanently changed economic and social facts of life. The Allies defeated an existential threat, but the kinds of situations that could reignite a struggle for survival are still very much present today.

An example of an existential threat in contemporary times could be another nation’s attempt to take away the freedom of US citizens through attacking it, whether militarily, through economic sabotage and pressure, or cyber-attacks as suggested in the Russian affair. These are contemporary examples with the potential to weaken our democratic system of government and threaten our way of life.

However, there are numerous situations in which the fundamental principles of democracy are being ignored, or betrayed by the people and by those who govern the people. Ironically, these abuses may sometimes be under the guise of the purported defense of democracy.

For example, significant portions of taxpayer money are spent on military defense systems that are supposed to provide safety. These systems, though, also give the US government untold power to strike almost anywhere around the globe under the reasoning of combating terrorism, and legal modifications such as those found in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) allow indefinite detention without trial for reasons of national security. Abroad, as developing nations drift more toward ultra-conservative societies, totalitarian tendencies begin to jeopardize the rule of law and human rights there as well.

The reality of existential threats

The term ‘existential threat’ was not a common phrase in the mass media before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1941 the danger of mass destruction of global proportions was real, so in a way, it was justified to use such a strong term. Since World War II ended, we have lived in fear of another global war that will endanger the survival of the human race. This manifested through the tension of the Cold War, coming to a head with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these fears certainly still linger today in the threat of nuclear and mass destructive technology.

The fear of the enemy at the gates has been used to justify massive spending on building stronger military structures instead of investing in civil society. This approach has its own inherent drawbacks which history has demonstrated repeatedly.

After all, every great empire has had its archenemy. The Romans had Carthaginians, while the British for example, had gone to war with France so many times that it is hard to keep track of the exact number of wars. The second half of the 20th century divided the world in the area of communist influence and the area of capitalist control. Naturally, these enemies considered and used each other as an existential threat and as an excuse to continue to stockpile weapons. Meanwhile, the citizens lived in fear that someone would take away their freedom and security. This fear fed into the paradigm of defense spending and prioritizing resistance to an external enemy instead of building up a bulwark to internal dangers.

Danger to Society

History proves that mighty empires fall despite their military might and defensive prowess. If society is not prosperous and its citizens are unhappy, then external threats are far less dangerous than the ones within. There are a wide panoply of internal divisions and tensions that can light up the powderkeg of civilizational collapse. Conflicts between the haves and the have-nots or clashes between different races, cultures, belief systems, ideologies, and religions can all flare up in a nation in crisis. When these tensions combine with a lack of faith in the system and its institutions there can be a rapid destabilization of a society and furtherance of tensions that eventually erupt to pose a threat to the safety of all the nation’s citizens.

For most people, quotidian security comes from a good job that allows them to have a roof over their head and food on their table. The Great Recession of 2008-09 and the ensuing lack of employment and economic mobility are thus arguably a bigger threat to the American society than terrorism or any other militaristic form challenge. That is because these economic hardships directly affect millions more people on a daily basis than terrorism or external enemies do.

Is a non-violent world possible?

The Romans said it more than 2,000 years ago: A man is a wolf to another man, and the greatest existential threat comes from one man to another man.

We can all play a role in reducing existential threats to the lives of innocent people, and the foundations of democracy. This will include reorienting the focus away from just external threats and towards internal threats and resolving social and political division. If we Americans lower our voices, reduce the demonizing rhetoric, get out of our bubbles and open our minds to new data and points of view there’s a lot we can accomplish. History suggests that scapegoating others in an economic crisis is a recipe for disaster, so we would be well advised as a society to band together and overcome any internal crises in order to be able to defeat any external threats.

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