Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Worst We Could Do

The images of medieval horror from the Middle East continue to pour our way, as helpless captives are beheaded or burned to death by the score in intentionally gruesome displays.

This is old school stuff, part of the pattern and dynamic of our dark past, and intended to both create fear and generate conflict.  Look at the terrible things we do, and fear us, ISIS seems to be saying.

Problem is, what they're doing is...well...quaint, in its bloodstained way.  Humanity has been through the 20th century and industrialization, and the peculiar retro character of their darkness seems callow.

I was reflecting on this while leafing through a book of the worst/most poorly designed weapons of all time, the sort of thing my adolescent sons seem to enjoy.  In that book was reference to arguably the single most horrific weapon ever designed by the United States of America.

This was the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and the weapon system in question was the SLAM, a hypersonic nuclear ramjet missile, known alternately as Project Pluto, "The Big Stick," or the Flying Crowbar.  The concept was simple, really.

It was designed to fly at near-treetop altitudes, like a drone or cruise missile.  But it was also a hypersonic ramjet designed to evade Soviet radar.  To do that, it would fly under 1000 feet at speeds in excess of Mach 3.5.  The pressure wave of its passing over was enough to incapacitate or kill.

But wait!  There's more!  It also carried a payload of eight nuclear warheads, which it would scatter over targets as it passed.  It could obliterate every single inhabited area in an entire region, killing tens of millions.

But wait!  There's more!  The ramjet used for its power source an unshielded 500 megawatt nuclear reactor.  As it passed overhead at Mach 3.5, it would lethally irradiate everything beneath it.  And because it was nuclear powered, it could keep flying for thousands of miles.  During that time, it would layer death upon death, deafening and shattering and poisoning, passing over again and again.  It was a mindless automaton, an Angel of Death killing the first, second, and all-born, rendering the world below it uninhabitable for thousands of years.

This system was designed, concept proven, and ready to go.  The engineering was sound.  But it couldn't be tested, because, well, it would kill everyone and lethally irradiate an entire region during the course of the test.

And I look at the ritualistic, primitive butchery of ISIS, and know that it pales in comparison to what mechanized, technologically advanced civilizations can accomplish.  After the Somme and Dresden, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?  And considering what might have been, if we had wandered down that path?

God help us, but we're a mess of a species.