Is Cyberwarfare the Nuclear Warfare of Our Generation?

The U.S. has gone to war over the surprise attack of its naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, the torpedo attack on warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, and indiscriminate attacks on ships in the North Atlantic.  But is the U.S. prepared to go to war over an attempt to shut down its electrical grid or malicious attempts to hack into classified accounts on the Internet? One thing is certain: cyberattacks on U.S. private computer networks have been escalating over the past year, and in response, the Pentagon has begun to outline the rules of engagement for cyberwarfare. As one military official bluntly put it, “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”


Cyberwarfare may sound like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel (and, in fact, the term “cyber” dates way back to Norbert Wiener and the Cold War era), but it has become a reality for U.S. corporations as well as the U.S. government. Nobody, it seems, is safe. Just this week, U.S. government officials admitted that persistent cyber-warriors had attempted to hack into non-secure Google Gmail accounts as a back door into classified security secrets. Weeks earlier, huge defense contractor Lockheed-Martin found itself the subject of sustained, ongoing attacks from hackers in China. All told, more than 100 foreign intelligence organizations have attempted to break in to the U.S. government's secure compuetr systems - and that's just what we know about.

The growth of cyberwarfare reflects the continued evolution in the nature of asymmetric warfare. You thought it was hard doing battle with the mujahadeen in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan? How about doing battle with the new generation of global cyber-warrior, who can disguise his or her identity and use nearly any computer or mobile device in the world to carry out an attack? It may be possible to retaliate against nation-states, but how do you carry out an attack against a nameless, faceless entity who may or may not be acting according to national security plans? How do you respond to a couple of guys with a laptop who take down the Internet in New York or Chicago or L.A.?

The 800-pound gorilla in the room, of course, is China. Even when policymakers talk about defending themselves from cyberwarfare threats, they are really talking about defending themselves against China. And, make no mistake about it -- there are already influential elements within China that equate cyberwarfare as the strategic war of the information era, just as nuclear war was the strategic war of the industrial era. (And let’s not be naïve, the U.S. has been playing around with cyberwarfare of its own, including rumors that it was behind the famous Stuxnet worm in Iran's nuclear reactors.)

What does that mean for the future of the U.S. government’s cyberwarfare policy? Certainly, it’s a good sign that the White House has started to lay out its strategy for cyberspace and has started to accelerate federal hiring efforts on cyber-security experts. More needs to be done - and quickly - to ensure that the nation's mission-critical systems are safe from cyberattack. Defense is the best offense. Truth be told, though, it's all a bit reminiscent of the Cold War era, when we lived under constant threat of nuclear attacks from enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

We also need to decide when a cyber-attack justifies a military response, and how vigorously we should respond. Just as we did with nukes, the U.S. Pentagon is already establishing the rules of engagement so that every alleged cyberattack does not result in a military strike. The Pentagon's currently policy is that it will only hit back with a military strike if a cyberattack causes the type of damage and mayhem associated with a traditional military attack. Before carrying out an attack - of any kind - we need to be able to identify our attackers with 99% certitude, and that's where things get dicey. After all, the worst thing in the world would be The Elderly Woman in Tblisi situation, where the Internet gets shut down due to a completely random mishap, and we start launching missiles at China in retaliatory response.

[image via Wikimedia Commons]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.