If there were no atomic bomb, we would all sleep much better. Why did humans build this weapon in the first place? They should have known that the same bomb that threatens their enemies can also take their own lives. What stupidity!
This is what seeming reasonable outrage sounds like. The philosopher Karl Jaspers described it in his book The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Man (1958). At the same time he noted the sentence: “Outrage doesn’t help.” It helps just as little as the appeasement that goes like this: If weapons develop such a destructive power that they not only threaten the enemy but also oneself, then they will never be used. Because nobody can want his own downfall. The balance of terror unfolds its beneficial effect. So it would be irrational to deprive yourself of sleep over Putin’s nuclear bombs.
But is that really true?
What we know, what we believe in
According to Jaspers, man and humanity begin to quarrel when they get into a borderline situation in which it is a matter of life or death, all or nothing. When they become aware of the borderline situation they are in. We are experiencing this awakening right now. It is a situation that has basically always been more acute than any pandemic, economic or climate crisis. Outrage is followed by appeasement and appeasement by normality. The pictures and news about the Russian atomic bombs then only appear as imperial showmanship, which is annoying.
But is that really true?
Jaspers calls this attitude one of “forgottenness” and sketches a completely different view of what is happening. Everyone knows that the atomic bomb could be detonated, but no one really believes in it. Therein lies the real danger – the more unlikely the worst-case scenario seems, the more likely it becomes. The situation can escalate at any time. A misunderstanding, a wrong gesture, an imagination is enough. But as long as the catastrophe is in front of all our eyes as a probability, as long as we not only know about it but actually believe in it, the less likely it is to occur.
Not impossible, but highly unlikely
In the borderline situation, Hölderlin’s motto applies: But where there is danger, the saving power also grows. Here lies the chance for “repentance” and “radical reflection”: the chance for real reason. In this respect, we should be reassured that Putin is carrying the atomic bombs and missiles in front of him like a monstrance. So long as he does so, nuclear war, while not impossible, is highly unlikely.
The worse we sleep, the more reason we have to sleep well.
René Scheu is a philosopher and director of the Institute for Swiss Economic Policy (IWP) in Lucerne. He writes in Blick every other Monday.
“Cleared & Enlightened” by René Scheu