Possession is use
People in nuclear weapons circles often say that possessing nuclear weapons is using them – possession is use. This has its roots in the idea of existential deterrence – the notion that merely by possessing nuclear weapons one gets the deterrence benefit from them. McGeorge Bundy, a man I was slightly acquainted with and liked, was one of the principle proponents of this view. I have sometimes argued that this idea was true myself.
On reflection, however, it’s a strange position to take. Imagine that I walked around all the time, in our small village, with a rock the size of a golf ball in my pocket. Last week, I took it out and threw it at you (because I was angry or we were having a dispute, let’s say.) Today, before all the village, you accuse me of using the rock against you. “You used that rock against me,” you say, and every head in the village circle nods solemnly. Most of the them saw it happen, the rest heard about it soon after. They know you are telling the truth.
Now imagine that I didn’t throw the rock at you last week. I kept it in my pocket the whole time. Now you stand before the village and accuse me: “You used that rock against me last week!” No heads in the circle will nod. In fact, people’s faces will darken and they will begin to wonder if you are mentally sound. A few who are sympathetic to you will wonder if maybe I threw the rock at you when no one was around to see it.
Now imagine that I keep a rock in my pocket all the time and everyone knows it but it is also widely believed that the rock is magic. It emanates strange forces that allow me to persuade people or cause their health to fail if I don’t like them. Now you stand in front of the village and angrily accuse, “You used that rock against me last week!” And some villagers will nod and some will wonder if it’s true, but none of them will think you’re crazy.
The point is that possession is use only where magic is involved. Only when you believe that nuclear weapons emanate some strange waves or force field that can affect people’s thinking from afar does possession equal use. It makes no sense to say of any ordinary object (like a rock) that possession is use. Only when the object is alleged to have special powers – magic, in other words – does it make sense to say in any ordinary discourse that merely having an object is the same as using it.