When you are boating on the Niagara River, there are signs marking the point at which you must go ashore or else you will be sucked over the falls. With Iran moving toward the development of nuclear weapons, we are getting dangerously close to that fatal point of no return on the world stage.
Yet there are few signs of alarm in our public discourse, whether among politicians, the media, or the intelligentsia. There is much more discussion of whether government anti-terrorism agents should be able to look at the records of books borrowed from public libraries.
The Iranian government itself is giving us the clearest evidence of what a nuclear Iran would mean, with its fanatical hate-filled declarations about wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. But send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
Just last year, before the American election, Osama bin Laden warned that those places that voted for the re-election of the President would become targets of terrorist retribution.
We could ignore him then. But neither we, nor our children, nor our children's children will ever be able to ignore him again if he gets nuclear weapons from a nuclear Iran.
We will live at his mercy — of which he has none — if he can wipe out New York or Chicago if we do not knuckle under to his demands, however outrageous those demands might be.
We will truly have passed the point of no return. What will future generations think of us, that we drifted on past the warning signs, preoccupied with library records and with giving foreign terrorists the same legal rights as American citizens?
We could deter the nuclear power of the Soviet Union with our own nuclear power. But you cannot deter suicidal terrorists. You can only kill them or stop them from getting what they need to kill you.
We are killing them in Iraq, though our media seem wholly uninterested in that part of the story, just as they seem uninterested in the fact that the fate of Western civilization may be at stake just across the border in Iran.
Of course they would like us to prevent Iran from going nuclear — if it can be done nicely by diplomacy, with the approval of the U.N., and in ways that do not offend “world opinion.”
It is as if we were on the Niagara River and wanted to go ashore before it was too late, but did not want to turn on the motors for fear of disturbing the neighbors with excessive noise.
But at that point, the choice is between being serious or being suicidal.
That is where we are internationally today. Many years ago, there was a book with the title The Suicide of the West. It may have been ahead of its time.
The squeamishness, indecision, and wishful thinking of the West are its greatest dangers because the West has the power to destroy any other danger. But it does not have the will.
Partly this is because most of our Western allies have been sheltered from the brutal realities of the international jungle for more than half a century under the American nuclear umbrella.
People insulated from dangers for generations can indulge themselves in the illusion that there are no dangers — as much of Western Europe has. This is part of the “world opinion” that makes us hesitant to take any decisive action to prevent a nightmare scenario of nuclear weapons in the hands of hate-filled fanatics.
Do not look for Europe to support any decisive action against Iran. But look for much of their intelligentsia, and much of our own intelligentsia as well, to be alert for any opportunity to wax morally superior if we do act.
They will be able to think of all sorts of nicer alternatives to taking out Iran's nuclear development sites. They will be able to come up with all sorts of abstract arguments and moral equivalence, such as: Other countries have nuclear weapons, so why not Iran?
Debating abstract questions is much easier than confronting concrete and often brutal alternatives. The big question is whether we are serious or suicidal.
Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He has published dozens of books of books on economics, education, race, and other topics. His most recent book is Black Rednecks and White Liberals, in which he argues that "internal" cultural habits of industriousness, thriftiness, family solidarity, and reverence for education often play a greater role in the success of ethnic minorities than do civil-rights laws or majority prejudices.