The Wrath of God

The Wrath of God

The Wrath of God

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
May 6 2000 2:00 AM

The Wrath of God

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Was the "love letter" computer virus inflicted on humankind by God as punishment for rampant carnality? Don't dismiss this theory until you've heard me explain it. Then you can and should dismiss it—in its literal form, at least, though I will go on to defend a secular, metaphorical version of it.

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Back when the AIDS virus first started getting press, some conservatives said it was God's punishment for licentious behavior. They were presumably wrong about the "God" part. Still, you might say that, metaphorically speaking, nature was "punishing" certain forms of behavior, rather as floods are said to "punish" people who build houses in valleys. Certainly the AIDS virus would never have become such a blight but for prolific sensual indulgence—promiscuity (both homosexual and heterosexual) and intravenous drug use. (Incidentally, by that I don't just mean the obvious: that since the virus spreads through these avenues, their existence was a prerequisite for its spread. I also mean that these avenues were.)

Of course, even if you agree that a biological virus can thus be said to "punish" certain behaviors, the word "punish" can't logically carry the value judgment that conservatives would like. After all, the flu virus "punishes" us for shaking hands—a form of social intercourse that even Pat Robertson approves of.

Anyway, today's question is: What sorts of behaviors do computer viruses "punish"? It depends on the virus. But I contend that, in the case of the love letter, sexual promiscuity was once again being punished.

Suppose you get an e-mail from an acquaintance. Suppose the e-mail says "I love you" in the subject heading and invites you to open an attachment. If you have much familiarity with the way computer viruses work, you probably won't open it. You know that some viruses use e-mail address books to send out copies of themselves; maybe the address book of your acquaintance was so used. However, there is one circumstance under which your suspicions wouldn't be aroused: If the acquaintance in question was someone that you slept with last Saturday night. Then you would click on the attachment—maybe with a sense of excitement, maybe with a sense of dread, but not with any sense for what was in fact about to happen.

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Of course, here, as with biological viruses, the moral of the story can't be the simple one conservatives would like. After all, if you got an "I love you" message from your husband or wife, you would have no reason to think anything was amiss. (OK: Most spouses would have no reason to think anything was amiss. OK, OK: Many spouses would have no reason to think anything was amiss.) You would click on the attachment and get "punished" for being married.

Still, conservatives could argue with some merit that if everyone was monogamous in the biblical sense—didn't even go so far as to covet their neighbor's wife—then this virus would not have spread nearly so fast. After all, if you get the love letter from your wife, and it sends itself to everyone in your address book, why should any of these acquaintances find it plausible enough to open—unless you've been exchanging precious bodily fluids, or at least flirtatious glances, with some of them?

Obviously, the route of transmission I'm describing is not the only route that this virus exploited. There are, for example, people who profess to love people they're not sexually attracted to. (Scientists are baffled.) Coming from the e-mail boxes of people like this, the virus might be especially plausible, hence especially potent. Imagine what this virus would have given for the Dalai Lama's e-mail address!

In the wake of viruses such as this one, people will become more and more suspicious of e-mail attachments, and virus designers will find their work more and more challenging. They will have to attune their viruses both to current social norms and to timeless dimensions of human nature. In this sense, the love-letter virus was an inspired creation; few things lead to more lapses of judgment than romance.

I invite readers to submit ideas for viruses they think are in this regard crafty—along with a description of the types of people the viruses would punish. I particularly encourage ideas for viruses that readers consider "just"—viruses that would punish people who arguably deserve punishment. (For example, a virus with the subject heading, "Re: revisions in the warranty on your Mercedes Benz utility vehicle." Just kidding, of course.) The reader who submits the winning virus will receive a free visit from an FBI agent. Speaking of which: Don't send the virus itself. That's illegal. Just send the idea for the virus. Needless to say, to avoid dire global consequences, The Earthling will handle submissions with the discretion for which he has long been noted.

All roads lead to the Earthling's Hobbyhorse: Viruses—biological, computer, whatever—lead me naturally to the growing logic behind world governance. The AIDS virus, along with Ebola and other deadly infectious agents, reminds us that, in the age of jumbo jets, it is in the interest of Americans to worry about the health of people who live halfway around the world—and even to subsidize their treatment via such agencies as the World Health Organization. The love-letter virus, which seems to have originated in the Philippines, reminds us that, in the age of Internet, there is growing need for international collaboration in law enforcement—whether in the form of world courts, or internationally harmonized laws, or just mild expansions of existing legal concepts. (If Philippine laws provide little or no punishment for this crime, could the virus designer be extradited to the United States for committing an act that damaged American property but wasn't committed on American soil?) For those not familiar with this particular Earthling hobbyhorse, other examples of the growing logic behind supranational governance can be found here and here. Or even, in a sense, here