A civilization that detonates nuclear bombs that throw mushroom clouds 40 miles into the air has gone mad.

Too many states have or can develop the bomb rapidly. Proliferation is easy, aided by the ostrich attitude: trusting Libya to dismantle its nuclear program, imagining trade measures could reverse the Iranian or North Korean programs, ignoring the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and unaccounted for Soviet nuclear weapons.

Societies exist in flux and only dynamically stable. The stability of chaotic systems depends on all impacts being statistically minor. The introduction of high-energy objects destabilizes chaos. Civilization withstands large-scale wars with moderately destructive weapons. Such weapons are applied gradually, and expectations, defenses, and responses are adjusted. Nuclear weapons cause large damage immediately and potentially destabilize social systems beyond their ability to adjust.

Huge countries like the US could survive a couple of nuclear explosions. One or two explosions would cement the nation: people would look to the government for aid and still believe the army protects them. Many explosions—like in the Soviet attack scenario—would still leave large parts of the country intact and habitable but destroy the framework of the state. People submit to states mostly for security, and nuclear attacks discredit a state in its citizens’ eyes. Worse, the citizens see that the state’s policies caused the attack. America will survive repetitive nuclear attacks as territory, though not as a state. The attacks need not be massive, only repetitive. Half a dozen North Korean bombs delivered one per month in containers to various US destinations and detonated in Customs would bring the state down no less than a massive Soviet attack. Similarly, several nuclear bombs could solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem amicably for other Muslims.

Beside a few stolen bombs, Russian arsenals will degrade peacefully in relative safety. North Korea won’t attack Japan or China with nuclear warheads. Pakistan has barely enough bombs to deter India. Iran only has regional ambitions. The European powers would shrink from nuking each other. Nuclear weapons will be employed in the near future only as terrorist devices and won’t spell the end of civilization, except perhaps the Jewish civilization recklessly concentrated in Israel.

The US is a good empire. Bad empires barely outlive their creators. Empires, like states, depend on more or less extorted consent and have to be nice. Rome was culturally and politically attractive to its protectorates, and so is the US. It would be a pity if the Americans, like the Romans, succumbed to barbarians.

The Asian nuclear arms race is good. If Asians used nuclear weapons in their wars, Europe and the US will get used to reports of nuclear attacks, and nuclear explosions in America won’t destabilize society very much.

Have no fear: a nuclear blast will happen. The destruction won’t be great: a Hiroshima-size bomb kills effectively only in about a 1,500ft radius, even less if exploded at ground level. Minimize the damage by promoting low-rise reinforced concrete buildings and dispersing the population and offices into suburban areas. Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashdod, New York, and Washington (also Las Vegas if the terrorists with nuclear weapons are fundamentalist) are likely targets, and people must be suicidal to live there.

The 9/11 attacks left the US establishment wondering about a proper response. Contingency plans should be made for nuclear terrorism as for any other military scenario. Make clear that the US will not search futilely for the particular perpetrators but will hold proliferators collectively responsible. The West should destroy proliferators’ major nuclear facilities to make the contingency threat credible.