48 Hours (William Fortschen)

I’ve read all of William Fortschen’s books.  They’re among the best of apocalypse fiction, a genre dominated by potboilers, so naturally, I preordered this book.  My big question was if the author could write something new, especially since at first glance it appears the apocalypse in 48 Hours is very similar to the EMP found in Fortschen’s most famous book, One Second After.  Without giving the story away, I can tell you this book is quite original.  And to me, the most interesting matter that Fortschen covers, indeed the plot driver of the entire book, relates to a long-running apocalypse concern of mine.  Namely, that the government, at any level, is not our friend, and would be our enemy in any real crisis where someone has to lose.

It’s entirely obvious, upon a moment’s reflection, that in any crisis today, whether a pandemic that requires medicine, a nuclear attack that requires shelter, a famine that requires food, or an alien attack where the aliens demand human flesh to eat, that our rulers would save themselves and their cronies first, along with, to the extent possible, their own property, and certainly, as much as possible, their own power.  I think this is mostly a new thing, the result of the rot of our ruling classes, including the disappearance of duty, virtue, and noblesse oblige.  George Washington wouldn’t save himself first, but I am certain that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would (the latter more certainly than the former).  Oh, sure, they’d make noises about how important it was that there be “continuity of government,” and that it was all for the future greater good, but the reality is that they’d make sure they got theirs, and so would their friends.

And it’s not just the President.  For no reason I can comprehend, other than naked self-interest,  Congress strongly believes that saving Congress is important, so they, their families, their staffers, and their hangers-on would get to the front of the line.  Bureaucrats of all stripes, the poisonous fruit of the grasping administrative state, would also get served first.  After all, how could we live without a fully staffed EEOC?  And it’s not just the federal government: as Fortschen paints a vivid picture, it would be state governments as well.  Not to mention that local governments would also get in on the act.  Municipal governments mostly wouldn’t have bunkers or stockpiled food (although I bet New York and Chicago do, hidden and reserved for Bill de Blasio and Rahm Emanuel, along with their toadies).  But I’m pretty certain, for example, that if the food in the stores ran out, in most municipalities the city government, allied with the police, would use the military equipment that the federal government has stupidly handed out, to go around to homes collecting it “for equitable distribution.”  Which is one reason I occasionally run the thought experiment of how to deal with the armored personnel carrier my local police department operates. Did you know that modern APC’s can be easily pierced by standard .50 caliber rounds?  I didn’t.

It’s unfortunate that today government is not to be trusted.  Perhaps it never could have been trusted, but the difference today is that the government has enormously more power.  Power to know what’s coming, power to build to protect the people who control it, power to defend what it builds.  But that’s where we are, and at least the view of government as the enemy in a zero-sum crisis is something that people all across the political spectrum can get behind, although conservatives and libertarians are probably more inclined to this realization.  That is, it might take liberals more time to realize that when government workers and their families go to the front of the line, there won’t be a back of the line, whatever promises are being made.  And those promises would be made—and perhaps even believed, because history shows that average people will swallow almost any story if accepting it makes them able to put off the choice to fight.  A strange inertia seems to overcome most people.  Rather than shooting their way to the front of the line when the fat EPA clerk waddles, along with his family and cousins, back into the “Government Workers Only” food line for seconds, then thirds, they’ll more likely wait for the promised crumbs to be dribbled to them through the barbed-wire-topped fence.  That’s stupid.  Shoot first.

I suppose you can’t really blame government workers for putting themselves at the front.  It’s a natural human response, after all.  Self-sacrifice to benefit others is largely, or exclusively, a Western concept derived from Christianity, and an aspirational one at that.  For example, during famines in China, including those caused by Mao, it was common for parents to kill and eat their children (although often by swapping their children with others’, so they didn’t have to do it themselves), something essentially inconceivable in the West, though perhaps not any longer in these post-Christian days.  The same thing happens in North Korea today, and I suspect would be true of any culture that is not Christian (or Jewish or Muslim, who have a similar self-sacrificing ethos, though without the applicable-to-everyone demand of the Golden Rule).  Why is it inconceivable to us, though, given that sacrificing others makes utilitarian sense?  It’s because of our superior culture, where parents would rather die than contemplate such an action, and everyone knows his duty is to take one for the team.  But I don’t think this principle extends, at least today, to limit governmental self-dealing in a crisis where someone has to lose—and that’s what this book illustrates with dramatic impact.

I don’t think that this is necessarily an argument for a minimalist state.  True, certainly, the state we have now is terrible, and a minimalist state would solve the problem of self-dealing by our ruling class in a crisis.  But I am not a libertarian; the governmental structure I would prefer is not one that necessarily maximizes personal liberty, certainly not in the way of modern “liberal democracy,” but a strong state based on principles of practicality and virtue—strong, that is, in those few areas that matter, and either non-existent in most areas of life, or based around rigorous principles of subsidiarity in any matters not essential to the central government.  Albert Jay Nock would hate my vision of government, but he would entirely agree with my point about modern governmental self-protection in crises.

Still, even my Augustan-type state would be susceptible to this problem, of the human beings who make up government acting purely in their own self-interest.  Our governmental heroes, or those who used to be our governmental heroes, like George Washington, were exceptional men.  In more recent times, I suppose, there are examples of leaders in government who refused to exempt themselves from risks faced by the common people, such as Churchill and King George VI staying in London during the Blitz, or even Stalin refusing to leave Moscow in 1941 (though he kept his fast train ready). But you can’t get exceptional men, reliably at least, without a virtuous society to generate them, and so getting that society is the key to solving the problem. I can’t think of any self-sacrificing or risk taking by any member of a Western government in many decades, but I can remember the entire United States government scurrying like rats to protect themselves on 9/11, and then turning Washington, and every federal building in the universe, into a fortress, at the cost of hundreds of billions, while grabbing massive amounts of fresh power for themselves. Maybe I’d be surprised by how our government reacted in a crisis.  But I doubt it.

You won’t feel good when you’ve finished this book.  But you’ll have learned something that may be very useful to you someday, that those who should protect us will do nothing of the sort, so it’s probably worth reading.


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