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Gingrich, N.C. author cause a stir with doomsday theory

This news story was published on December 27, 2011.
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By Jim Morrill, McClatchy Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Airliners falling from the sky. Mass starvation. Roving gangs in lawless cities. Highways transformed into “nightmare paths of exile.”

That’s the American Armageddon envisioned by Bill Forstchen, a history professor at Montreat College in Black Mountain, about 110 miles west of Charlotte.

It’s also a doomsday threat invoked by Forstchen’s longtime friend, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Their apocalyptic scenario: EMP, an electromagnetic pulse triggered by a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere, crippling electrical grids, infrastructure and society as we know it.

“Newt’s been the only candidate to aggressively point out there is a national security threat with EMP,” Forstchen said.

Gingrich and Forstchen have co-authored nine books since a publisher brought them together in 1994, just before Gingrich was elected House speaker. Most of their books are historical novels set during the Revolution, the Civil War or World War II. A novel about the Battle of Yorktown is due out next year.

But recently they’ve drawn attention — and criticism — not for a collaboration, but rather for the theory explored in Forstchen’s 2009 book, “One Second After,” and extolled by Gingrich.

The book, set at Montreat College, is a science-fiction account of an EMP attack and its aftermath.

Writing the introduction, Gingrich said an EMP burst, triggered by an enemy nuclear weapon, would “throw all of our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages. Millions would die in the first week alone.”

Forstchen said he and Gingrich began discussing such a book in 2004 after a congressional commission on the EMP threat issued its report. The commission called EMP “one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.”

Critics say the alarms are overblown.

Time magazine called it one of Gingrich’s “wackier ideas.” Some scientists, even if not dismissing the threat, argue that it’s not as great as proponents suggest.

“It’s a theoretical possibility but it’s overblown for a number of reasons,” said Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and consultant with the Federation of American Scientists. “If you have a nuclear weapon and you want to have an impact on a city, the easiest thing to do is set it off.”

Writing last year in The Space Review, he said while some vulnerability to a nuclear-triggered EMP is real, “a much greater threat to the U.S. electricity-grid infrastructure is from a powerful once-in-a-century type solar storm.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial this month applauded Gingrich while chiding EMP’s skeptics.

“Few imagined a terror attack using airplanes against the twin towers or anthrax in letters,” it said.

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