Donald Trump is commander of the American nuclear arsenal, and Kim Jong Un has announced that North Korea is in the “final stage” of perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile that could travel 5,900 miles, reaching the U.S. West Coast.
Is Los Angeles on the target list? The best fragmentary piece of evidence was a 2013 photograph of a Pyongyang war room — released by the North Koreans — that displayed four U.S. assets in the crosshairs of an attack: the Pacific Fleet at San Diego, the Air Force Global Strike Command in Louisiana, Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the center of government in Washington, D.C.
Although Los Angeles was not included on the “Map of Death,” as arms control experts called it, the second-largest city in the United States still has a few assets-turned-liabilities that make it an attractive mark.
The first is our 4,850 square miles of sprawl, which means that even an inaccurately fired ICBM stands a good chance of taking out millions of people instead of hitting lightly populated desert or mountains. The other is that they’ve struck at us before: This is the headquarters of Sony Pictures, the target of the infamous 2014 computer hack, possibly in revenge for a comedy Kim didn’t like.
Los Angeles has lived under the shadow of doom for a long time. Our civic mascots might well be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Of course a surprise attack on Los Angeles would result in the prompt obliteration of North Korea. But mutually assured destruction won’t necessarily keep us safe. A regional conflict could quickly escalate in the hands of an unprepared or impetuous commander in chief. And if it fears a ground invasion, the North Korean regime might decide to go down shooting everything it has — a dying bite from the rattlesnake.
“The idea would be to not just sit there like Saddam Hussein did while forces were building up,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists called this scenario a “spasm” response.
Los Angeles could then find its greatest subconscious image blooming upward to reality: The city as an apocalyptic ruin. Our municipal poets have contemplated this eventuality just as assiduously as medieval monks studied the eschatology of the New Testament. “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left one stone upon another.”
Not only is Los Angeles among the most filmed cities in history, it is also among the most destroyed cities in the history of film. It has been the arena for alien invasions (“War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day”), zombie insurrections (“Night of the Comet,” “Zombieland”), a river of lava emerging from the La Brea Tar Pits (“Volcano”), bad weather (“The Day After Tomorrow”), solar flares (“Where Have All the People Gone?”), ground tremors (“Earthquake”) and, of course, nuclear attack (“Terminator 2,” “Miracle Mile”).
The L.A. death-wish extends far beyond the screen. Moralists in the 19th century viewed its tavern culture and vigilante mobs with alarm, and saw its earthquakes and mountain brush fires as proof of divine displeasure. Intellectuals in the 20th century were horrified by the rows of tract homes extending into the horizons of Technicolor infinity; they saw one big suburban hell.
Our local vocabulary of total destruction is both literal and spiritual. In 1957, excessive oil drilling threatened to sink portions of the harbor at San Pedro below sea level. Eight years later, the traveling preacher William Branham made a prophecy that the whole metropolis would tip into the Pacific Ocean for its sins. “Thou city, who claims to be the city of the Angels,” he cried. “Remember, one day you’ll be laying in the bottom of the sea, your great honeycomb under you right now.”
In the same edgy era, Joan Didion contemplated the Santa Ana winds and the Watts uprising as omens of annihilation: “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself…. At the time of the 1965 riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.” That description, from the essay collection “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” should sound familiar; it’s cited so frequently it might as well be carved in marble on the front of City Hall.
Perhaps our premonitions of fiery doom come from guilt. Life here is physically easier than just about anywhere else in the country, with year-round sunshine, omnipresent material conveniences and ubiquitous frivolous pursuits. We fear that a stern Calvinist God will grow tired of the party and demand a sacrifice one day.
Or perhaps we fear rough justice for the city’s heritage of crimes large and small: the blatant water-theft from the Owens Valley, the corrupt regimes of Mayor Frank Shaw and other shady elected officials, the manifold abuses of the LAPD, the scams of the motion picture business, the flagrant inequality written out in the brutal geography of where people live. For the multimillionaire looking out from the deck of a cantilevered palace on Mulholland Drive onto the disenfranchised vistas of South L.A. at night, alive with the angry buzz of police helicopters, the biblical image of a “lake of fire” might be hard to avoid.
Geoff Wilson, a nuclear specialist and policy associate at the Ploughshares Fund, projected what would happen if a 20-kiloton North Korean warhead powered by an AN-09 missile hit downtown Los Angeles. The immediate death toll would be 107,310, with an additional 152,140 injuries from burns and falling buildings. Many more would die from radiation sicknesses and cancers. The city would likely be rendered uninhabitable.
Los Angeles has lived under the shadow of doom for a long time. Our civic mascots might well be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What now stands between us and the end times is not just the scotch tape that holds the tectonic plates together, or the fragile sense of order that keeps racial animus at bay, or the light winter drizzles that keep the chaparral just this side of hydrated, but the combined prudence and good sense of two great statesmen: Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University and the author of “Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World.”
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