Sam Harris’s kind of thought experiment
The conclusion from these premises is precisely what is at stake – the moment the reader buys into the idea of nuclear threat, then nuclear first strike seems a plausible conclusion. But unlike the cousin in our thought experiment, there is absolutely no possibility of long-range nuclear weapons by hostile Islamic regimes. Note that part of Harris’s argumentation relies on a very false premise (“If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them”). The ‘fun’ bit here is precisely that ‘if history is any guide’, we will know precisely where the offending warheads are and what their state of readiness is. We are not talking about some dirty bomb that could be carried in a suitcase from border to border, Harris’s thought experiment deals with a ‘long-range’ nuclear weapon (an InterContinental Ballistic Missile). The dubiousness of this is so extremely idiotic that accepting the premise itself may very well qualify for the worst thought experiment. If anything, history has shown us the exact opposite of what Harris proposes – namely, that any test of long-range weapons by any country (even the most developed ones) is always noticed by the international community.
Consider that Iran comes in the news 3-4 times a year for its tests with ICBMs – these simply cannot be developed or fired in secret. And even if that were the case, if a whole nation of Iran with all of its riches from oil exports to support extensive testing and advances in technology can barely make an ICBM that reaches Jerusalem, how would a group of Islamic terrorists do such a thing? How would they test any of their warheads and missiles (unless, of course, they are willing to fire them without any tests, and have them explode precisely where they were fired from).1
It is this imaginary threat that is Harris’s premise through which a nuclear first strike is justified. It is far more likely that your cousin is in a gang and owns a bazooka and is planning to kill you and he would do it just for fun.