“To start the program, don’t be scared, we’re going to dim the lights,” said Elizabeth Kreft, an aide to Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
The lights went out in the House Judiciary subcommittee hearing room Tuesday and the crowd of congressional aides, journalists, and doomsday preppers watched as a video warned of a world without electricity. Naturally, it opened with a rotating globe that suddenly went dark. Then came the piano and synthesizer mood music, and a list of things that would cease to function (health care! finance! and, even worse, sewers!).
No, this was not an episode of some futuristic TV show. This was a prophecy, one that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been warning us all about for years. The fear: Could a nuclear explosion high above the United States send an electronic pulse on a Shermanesque march through our electronic grid, laying it all to waste?
“We gave you a warning when the lights went out in this room, but imagine if you didn’t have a warning,” Kreft said before introducing Gingrich to the crowd.
To anyone in the room who suffered from achluophobia, this event was going to be downright terrifying. “This could be the kind of catastrophe that ends civilizations, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Gingrich said.
It’s been a difficult sell for Gingrich, who has been stumping about this for years (it became one of his talking points in his presidential run). But this wasn't the kind of event that was going to get much play either. The next most well-known member of the panel was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in the Valerie Plame case.
Libby was sharing the room with Franks, whose office sponsored the event and who has recently earned national attention for saying that pregnancy rates due to rape were “very low.”
“I was told the other day there is a fine line between gutsy and stupid,” Franks said.
Skeptics say fear about a massive electromagnetic pulse is overblown: A hostile nation wouldn't waste a nuclear weapon by detonating it in the air, hoping for secondary effects. Gingrich and his allies counter that taking out the infrastructure of huge swaths of the country would do much more damage than a strike on a single city. “You take the defense budget, the Homeland Security budget, and you ask yourself where on that list of priorities would the cost of not being prepared for EMP, and my guess is you can find literally hundreds of billions of dollars of lesser important investments,” Gingrich said.
To drive the point home, Libby evoked the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the country’s leaders were accused of not being able to predict such an event. “That was not a failure of imagination,” he said, noting that there were plenty of congressional hearings about potential terrorist attacks in the late 1990s. “It was a failure of responsibility. That’s what we have here. Everyone in this room now has imagined…. The trick is to take effective action on it.”