From chapter "Courage"
Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.
William S. Burroughs
I learned about e-bombs from one of my students—Casey Maddox, an excellent writer—at the prison. He wrote an extraordinary novel about someone who is kidnapped and put through a twelve-step recovery program for an addiction to Western civilization. The book’s title is The Day Philosophy Died, and, as we’ll get to in a moment, that title is related to E-bombs.
E-bombs are, to my reckoning, one of the few useful inventions of the military-industrial complex. They are kind of the opposite of neutron bombs, which, if you remember, kill living beings but leave nonliving structures such as cities relatively intact: the quintessence of civilization. E-bombs, on the other hand, are explosive devices that do not hurt living beings, but instead destroy all electronics. Casey calls them “time machines,” because when you set one off you go back one hundred and fifty years.
At one point in the novel the kidnappers are going to use a small plane to drop an E-bomb over the Bay Area. They carry the bomb on board inside a casket. The main character asks, “Who died?”
“Philosophy,” someone says. “When philosophy dies,” that person continues, “action begins.”
As they prepare to set off the E-bomb, the main character keeps thinking, “There’s something wrong with our plan.” The thought keeps nagging him as they do their countdown to the celebration. Five, four, three, two, one. And the main character gets it, but too late. The E-bomb explodes. Their plane plummets.
One of the kidnappers clutches his chest, keels over. He’s got a pacemaker. Even nonviolent actions can kill people. At this point, any action, including inaction, has lethal consequences. If you are civilized, your hands are more or less permanently stained deep dark red with the blood of countless human and non- human victims.
Long before he finished the book, Casey showed me where he first read about E-bombs. It was in, of all places, Popular Mechanics. If you check the September 2001 issue out of the library—which even has rudimentary instructions for how to construct one—make sure you use someone else’s library card. Preferably someone you don’t like.
The article was titled, “E-bomb: In the Blink of an Eye, Electromagnetic Bombs Could Throw Civilization Back 200 Years. And Terrorists [sic] Can Build Them for $400.”
And that’s a bad thing?
The author, Jim Wilson, begins: “The next Pearl Harbor will not announce itself with a searing flash of nuclear light or with the plaintive wails of those dying of Ebola or its genetically engineered twin. You will hear a sharp crack in the distance. By the time you mistakenly identify this sound as an innocent clap of thunder, the civilized world will have become unhinged.”
So far so good.
He continues, “Fluorescent lights and television sets will glow eerily bright, despite being turned off. The aroma of ozone mixed with smoldering plastic will seep from outlet covers as electric wires arc and telephone lines melt. Your Palm Pilot and MP3 player will feel warm to the touch, their batteries over-loaded. Your computer, and every bit of data on it, will be toast.”
I know, I know, this all sounds too good to be true. But it gets even better.
Wilson writes,“And then you will notice that the world sounds different too. The background music of civilization, the whirl of internal-combustion engines, will have stopped. Save a few diesels, engines will never start again. You, however, will remain unharmed, as you find yourself thrust backward 200 years, to a time when electricity meant a lightning bolt fracturing the night sky. This is not a hypothetical, son-of-Y2K scenario. It is a realistic assessment of the damage the Pentagon believes could be inflicted by a new generation of weapons—E-bombs.”
When I mention all this at my shows, people often interrupt me with cheers.
The core of the E-bomb idea is something called a Flux Compression Generator (FCG), which the article in Popular Mechanics calls “an astoundingly simple weapon. It consists of an explosives-packed tube placed inside a slightly larger copper coil, as shown below. [The article even has a diagram!] The instant before the chemical explosive is detonated, the coil is energized by a bank of capacitors, creating a magnetic field. The explosive charge detonates from the rear forward. As the tube flares outward it touches the edge of the coil, thereby creating a moving short circuit. ‘The propagating short has the effect of compressing the magnetic field while reducing the inductance of the stator [coil],’ says Carlo Kopp [an Australian-based expert on high-tech warfare]. ‘The result is that FCGs will produce a ramping current pulse, which breaks before the final disintegration of the device. Published results suggest ramp times of tens of hundreds of microseconds and peak currents of tens of millions of amps.’ The pulse that emerges makes a lightning bolt seem like a flashbulb by comparison.”
As good as all this may sound (oh, sorry, I forgot that technological progress is good; civilization is good; destroying the planet is good; computers and televisions and telephones and automobiles and fluorescent lights are all good, and certainly more important than a living and livable planet, more important than salmon, swordfish, grizzly bears, and tigers, which means the effects of E-bombs are so horrible that nobody but the U.S. military and its brave and glorious allies should ever have the capacity to set these off, and they should only be set off to support vital U.S. interests such as access to oil, which can be burned to keep the U.S. economy growing, to keep people consuming, to keep the world heating up from global warming, to keep tearing down the last vestiges of wild places from which the world may be able to recover if civilization comes down soon enough), it gets even better (or worse, if you identify more with civilization than your landbase): After an E-bomb is detonated, and destroys local electronics, the pulse piggybacks through the power and telecommunication infrastructure. This, according to the article, “means that terrorists [sic] would not have to drop their homemade E-bombs directly on the targets they wish to destroy. Heavily guarded sites, such as telephone switching centers and electronic funds-transfer exchanges, could be attacked through their electric and telecommunication connections.”
The article concludes on this hopeful note: “Knock out electric power, computers and telecommunication and you’ve destroyed the foundation of modern society. In the age of Third World-sponsored terrorism,305 the E-bomb is the great equalizer.”