Friday, August 5, 2016

What's Best For Children?


The policy of nuclear deterrence is a raging failure masked as a roaring success. It is a failure because if it does break down—and it will, unless we change direction—we are all toast—we and our innocent, hopeful children.

The candidacy of Donald Trump, however disconcerting, has opened the door a crack to public discussion of deterrence.  Mr. Trump has, at least implicitly, raised the issue of the unfortunate effect of NATO having violated its word not to expand eastward, word given when Gorbachev was in the midst of dissolving the Soviet Union.

Agreed, deterrence has been a major factor in preventing a third world war from 1945 until the present. The problem is what the future holds. Deterrence masquerades as a stable system when in truth it is constantly subject to ongoing imbalances—advances in technology, the diversification of kinds of nuclear weapons available, enlargement of the number of nations possessing them, and successions of leadership.  All these factors in combination almost certainly will result in a deterrence breakdown sometime in the future.

We persist in the illusion that someone is “in charge” of these weapons. Here especially the emperor is walking around naked, clothed only in the transparent illusion of fail-safe mechanisms. There are indications that in some circumstances control has moved down the military chain of command, as in Pakistan, where it is said that the use of nuclear weapons has been left up to battlefield commanders in the Kashmir conflict. We may assume the nine nuclear nations have given some thought to what might happen if their head of state was unable, in the chaos of war, to maintain command and control, and so mechanisms no doubt have been developed that would allow others to make world-ending decisions. But that only intensifies the potential for confusion. Because of the complexity of the electronic systems connected to these thousands of weapons, there is a strong argument to be made that no one is really in charge—only the system—a system, as the record shows, capable of feeding false information to the fallible humans monitoring it.

The questions raised about Mr. Trump’s temperament, particularly where it comes to his potentially being in charge of the nuclear codes, underscore the bizarre nature of deterrence overall, where the head of a democracy—or for that matter a totalitarian state like North Korea—may have only minutes to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet.

The provocative notion of a “madman” somehow getting into the system and starting a war oversimplifies the reality of our situation, which is that any human being, not just a knowledge-averse demagogue like Mr. Trump, may have the capacity to go “mad” in the tensions leading up to the decision to launch. The historical record shows that past presidents of the U.S. have seriously considered using nuclear weapons, most distressingly Mr. Nixon when he realized we were losing in Vietnam. Even a “no-drama” Obama could be rendered almost psychotic with dread by evidence that missiles were apparently headed for our major cities.  This is a situation that is far beyond the psychological endurance of even the sanest and well-trained leader. Madness is relative in the nuclear world.  We would certainly label mad an extremist who set off a nuclear weapon in a city. We do not apply the same label to the whole field of leaders and diplomats who seem to be more or less satisfied, or pretend they are, with a status quo that is patently insane.

If leaders had the same nightmares that many citizens have, they would be far more aggressive in setting up ongoing international conferences hell-bent on raising the level of awareness that the deterrence system is obsolete and self-contradictory—a false god that fails to provide security and must be disavowed before it fails to provide survival. Nuclear weapons have been proliferating on the planet now for over seventy years. Their destructive power has far outgrown the most intense hatred any human could feel for adversaries.  Computer models hypothesize that it would take the detonation of only a fraction of the available weapons to bring about planet-wide changes in climate, rendering a nuclear “solution” to conflict self-negating.  (Discussion of this in our presidential election process so far seems off-limits.)

What would constitute a healthy response to this collusive madness? It ought to be shame. Shame because we know that we have invented a system intended to protect civilians, including children, which will make no distinction between civilian and military. We know shame is present if only because we do not talk with children about this curse we have laid on them. We are not honest about it, because it is unbearable and makes us feel helpless. If we did have the courage and skill to talk about it, it might be something like the situation in which black families are forced to have a poignant talk with their young male children about being extra-subservient in the presence of the police—except no degree of subservience to power will prevent nuclear apocalypse. It is up to grown-ups to begin now to make the necessary structural changes in these similarly intolerable situations. 

One of the bottlenecks that slows nuclear disarmament is that nations know that possessing nuclear arms deter powers like the U.S. from imposing regime change upon them.  We are not going to be able to use superior police-the-world military force to cut this particular Gordian Knot. Open dialogue that breaks down fears and stereotypes on the basis that we’re all in this together, leading to gradual, reciprocal agreements to disarm, is the only way to keep our children from becoming toast.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Beyond Drift


It is hard to say which is more mesmerizing about our present cultural moment, the blustering neo-fascism of Donald Trump, or the state of the body politic which seems to be so receptive to it, encouraging him ever closer to the presidency. Like Bernie Sanders, he has charged forward riding upon our collective longing for authenticity, our pervasive fatigue with political double-speak and government by corruption, cronyism, and gridlock. 

Trump’s “authenticity” is a two-sided coin: his “solutions” will only lead to further division of race and class domestically and further war internationally—and they invite careful listening as a manifestation of our country’s unadmitted shadow, as Kern Beare writes in his brilliantly concise piece, “Listening to Trump.”

Some—I hope there will be enough who will back up their conviction with a vote—might say that Trump’s authenticity is consummately fake, the ultimate manifestation of reality TV, shallow celebrity culture, being famous for being famous.  But he would never have gotten this far without having given authentic voice to a strain of darkness in our past and present that will do us harm unless we keep bringing it into the light of self-reflection and repentance.

Shadow is a simple word that encompasses all that we refuse to consciously address, preferring to drift in a haze of convenient simplifications and half-truths. It is easy, especially in the midst of an intensely polarized political contest, to assert that it is my party alone that will restore the U.S.A. to unalloyed greatness. It is much harder to acknowledge our shadow side as manifested in the three great interrelated whirlpools of darkness charted by Martin Luther King Jr. back in 1967: materialism, racism, and militarism.

If these remain unconscious, we drift. As our black president finishes out two terms, those in congress who have opposed his every initiative drift in a sleep of latent racism. Our materialism has led to an uneven playing field and a drift of wealth and power toward the top. Mr. Trump is a prime example, even while he pretends to be a pal of the working class. As Nick Kristof wrote in the Times, materialist excess and racism are woven into his business history: “A former building superintendent working for the Trumps explained that he was told to code any application by a black person with the letter C, for colored, apparently so the office would know to reject it. A Trump rental agent said the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and discouraged renting to blacks.”

But the greatest whirlpool of all in which we drift in semi-conscious unease is our unchecked militarism. Racism and militarism are interwoven whirlpools, as we saw recently in the tragedies in Dallas and in Baton Rouge—African American veterans targeted the police with a military assault rifles and tactics—one of whom was in turn killed by police equipped with a military-style explosive robot.

And in all the presidential debates so far, there has been zero mention of the trillion-dollar proposal to renew all our nuclear weapons systems over the next 30 years—as if nuclear weapons were an authentic answer to the challenges of poverty, food insecurity, disease, climate change, or terrorism. What real human needs could we meet by the reallocation of just a few of those thousand billions poured into all our foreign bases and weapons?

The international community and the U.S. especially lack a vision for concluding both the war on terror and the nuclear balance of terror, relying instead entirely on overwhelming, world-deployed, fight-fire-with-fire military force.  If brute strength is not complemented by non-violent processes of reaching out and reconciliation, by adherence to international law, and by generous humanitarian aid, a violent backlash, as we have seen with ISIS, becomes inevitable.

There are people everywhere, not enough, but perhaps more than we may think, who have ceased to drift passively in these whirlpools of our times. People like peace activist David Hartsough, who recently led a group of citizens to Russia to establish friendly connections and overcome hardening stereotypes recalling the obsolete cold war of the last century. People like Len and Libby Traubman, who for 20 years have brought together small groups of American Jews and Palestinians to share a meal, trade stories, and put a human face on a seemingly intractable conflict. People like David Swanson, a one-man dervish who has put together a mega-sized peace conference to take place in Washington in September. Or Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is difficult to understand how anyone can argue that “black lives matter” is a racist statement when unarmed black people are being profiled and then shot by police at much higher rates than whites. Or Al Jubitz, an Oregon philanthropist who works tirelessly on citizen initiatives to prevent war. Or the police in Aarhus, Denmark, who fight terrorism by welcoming back young people who have been sucked into the whirlpool of ISIS. Or Paul Kando, a retired engineer in my small town in Maine who has come up with a comprehensive plan to gradually end our local and state over-reliance on fossil fuels in favor of a citizen-initiated transition to renewable energy sources.

The triple threat of racism, militarism and materialism always divide the world into “us” and “them,” the well-heeled and the needy, the Caucasian and the swarthy, the fully human Western European and the Muslim in whose distant cities death by suicide bombings does not merit the same media coverage as identical carnage in Paris or Orlando.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech at the Democratic Convention was so effective because it focused upon an issue that potentially unites us all, both conservative and liberal: what is best for our children? Children will not flourish without adults in their lives who have come to terms with their own shadow, with the deep truth that we are all human and imperfect. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn provided the precise antidote to Trumpian bromides that perpetuate division and encourage our continued drift: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Saturday, July 9, 2016

“No conflict has ever been solved with violence"


The inside of Obama’s head must be a fascinating place. Our first black President, clearly one of the most self-aware and brilliant minds that ever held the office, must not only walk a line between sympathy for black victims of unwarranted police violence and support for the risky work that police must do daily to maintain us as a society of laws, but also make wrenching, complex decisions about how best to put the enormous military forces at his disposal to constructive use in faraway lands.

Further, he presides over a gridlocked congress, subject to an apparent subliminal racism of its own, that has fought him tooth and nail, him and anyone else who thinks a few small gun law reforms might not be a bad idea at this chaotic moment in our history. At the same time, he meets with subordinates regularly to decide who may be worthy of assassination by drone somewhere in the lawless hinterlands of Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan or Iraq—what some have called extra-judicial murder. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance must be mind-boggling.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous Riverside Church speech of 1967, “Beyond Vietnam,” cataloged the ingredients of the toxic brew we must acknowledge and eliminate if we really hope to make America great: rampant racism, materialism, and militarism. America’s original sin, the slave trade and the tragic consequences that have unfolded from that sin, is far from resolved. Donald Trump’s rhetoric only drags us back into the dark side of our history, taking us further from the light of resolution.

Racism, materialism, and militarism are closely woven into our culture and with each other. When our militarism seeks out enemies to justify itself, they are frequently non-white (and since World War II except for some Serbs in 1999, when we actually attack and kill, none are caucasian). Our economic system, rigged to benefit a small number of the privileged, is fatally tied to the manufacture of bombs and fighter planes and missiles and submarines. Material greed is the motivational engine driving the contemptible lobbyists for the gun industry like the NRA and the equally contemptible politicians that lack the courage to pass common-sense gun regulation. The “chickens coming home to roost” element in the Dallas horror is inescapable. The shooter was a veteran who had been deployed to Afghanistan. Instead of trying to capture him alive, perhaps allowing us to learn more about whether his experience abroad affected his mental stability, a “drone” (robot-delivered) bomb was used to blow him up, a tactic associated with the military, never before with police.

One way we have avoided confronting ourselves has been to take on the strange and futile task of playing policeman to the whole world. What gives us the moral authority to play this exalted role? The events of this past week demonstrate how much work we have to do at home before we browbeat the rest of the world into arranging their affairs to suit our interests.

Erik Wilson, the black deputy mayor pro tem of Dallas, spoke the most important words this week: “No conflict has ever been solved with violence,” he told CNN. “It’s always been solved with conversation. And that is something that we need to focus on.”

If this country—if this planet—is to have a future beyond racism, militarism, and materialism, we and our leaders must embrace Erik Wilson’s diagnosis and prescription as something worthy of consistent application at home and abroad. What kind of conversation with each other and with our fellow human beings beyond our borders will give form to a shared vision of peace beyond our own “civil wars” and the endless war on terror? What example could we set here that might help Shia and Sunni understand that “no conflict has ever been solved with violence?”

There’s a huge upside to our situation: we are a free country; in fact, we are still the hope of the world, as we know because so many millions would give an arm and a leg to come here. We are free to face our pain, anger and fear, and our addiction to violence as the unworkable response to these emotions. We are free to name our challenges honestly, and to find new ways to meet them by deep conversation in our “civil public square.”

Whether we agree or disagree with the specific prescriptions of a candidate like Bernie Sanders, he has exemplified an integrity and moral consistency that speaks to many of us, especially young people. He has touched a longing in us, only intensified by this week’s horrors, to embrace a vision of authenticity and inclusivity beyond the reflexive violence of the wars at home and wars abroad that share all too much in common.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Up Against the Wall


Everything on our small planet affects everything else. This interdependence is more a harsh reality than a New Age bromide. A diminishing few may still deny human agency in climate instability, but they can hardly pretend that diseases, or wind-driven pollution, are unstoppable by national borders.  Even Donald Trump would not be able to build a wall that stopped the Zika virus, micro-particulates wafting from the coal plants of China, or the flow of radioactive water from Fukushima.

It is especially urgent that we understand the bizarre interdependence that arises from the reality that nine nations possess nuclear weapons. It no longer matters how many nuclear weapons a given nation has, because detonation of such weapons by any nation, even a relatively small portion of the world’s arsenals, could result in a “nuclear winter” that would have planet-wide effects.

We have reached a wall, not a physical Trump-style wall, but an absolute limit of destructive power that changes everything. The implications even reverberate back down into supposedly smaller, non-nuclear conflicts. The late Admiral Eugene Carroll, who was once in charge of all American nuclear weapons, said it straight out: “to prevent nuclear war, we must prevent all war.” Any war, including such regional conflicts as the ongoing border dispute in Kashmir between India and Pakistan, could rapidly escalate to the nuclear level.

Clearly this notion, understandable enough to a layperson like me, has not sunk in at the highest levels of foreign policy expertise in our own and other countries. If it had, the United States would not be committing itself to a trillion-dollar upgrade of its nuclear arsenal. Nor would Russia be spending more on such weapons, nor India, nor Pakistan.

The analogy with America’s gun obsession is inescapable. Many politicians and the lobbyists to contribute to their campaigns, defying common sense, advocate for an expansion of rights and permits to carry guns into classrooms and churches and even bars, arguing that if everyone had a gun we would all be more secure. Would the world be safer if more countries, or God forbid all countries, possessed nuclear weapons—or would we be safer if none did?

When it comes to how we think about these weapons, the concept of “enemy” itself needs to be mindfully re-examined. The weapons themselves have become everyone’s enemy, an enemy much fiercer than the most evil human adversary imaginable. Because we share the reality that my security depends upon yours and yours upon mine, the concept of an enemy that can be effectively annihilated by superior nuclear firepower has become obsolete. Meanwhile our thousands of weapons remain poised and ready for someone to make a fatal mistake and annihilate everything we cherish.

The most implacable adversaries are precisely the parties who should be reaching out and talking to each other with the most urgency: India and Pakistan, Russia and the U.S., South and North Korea. The difficult achievement of the treaty slowing and limiting the ability of Iran to make nuclear weapons is beyond laudable, but we need to augment its strength by building webs of friendship between U.S. and Iranian citizens. Instead, the status quo of mistrust is maintained by obsolete stereotypes reinforced by elected officials and pundits.

As important are treaties of non-proliferation and war-prevention, networks of genuine human relationship are even more crucial. As the peace activist David Hartsough has written about his recent trip to Russia: “Instead of sending military troops to the borders of Russia, let’s send lots more citizen diplomacy delegations like ours to Russia to get to know the Russian people and learn that we are all one human family. We can build peace and understanding between our peoples.” Again this may sound like a bromide to the political and media establishment, but instead it is the only realistic way our species can get past the wall of absolute destruction that contains no way out on the level of military superiority.

Reagan and Gorbachev came very close to agreeing to abolish their two nations’ nukes in their conference in Reykjavik in 1986. It could have happened. It should have happened. We need leaders with the vision and daring to push all-out for abolition. As a citizen with no special expertise, I cannot understand how a person as smart as President Obama could go to Hiroshima and hedge his statements about the abolition of nuclear weapons with mealy phrases like “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime.” I hope Mr. Obama makes as great an ex-president as has Jimmy Carter. Set free from the political constraints of his office, perhaps he will join Mr. Carter in robust peace initiatives that use his relationships with world leaders to seek real change.

His voice will be crucial, but it is only one voice. NGOs like Rotary International, with millions of members in thousands of clubs in hundreds of countries, are our safest, quickest way to real security. But for organizations like Rotary to really take on war prevention as it took on the worldwide eradication of polio, rank-and-file Rotarians, like all citizens, must awaken to the degree to which everything has changed, and reach across walls of alienation to supposed enemies. The horrific possibility of nuclear winter is in an odd way positive, because it represents the self-defeating absolute limit of military force up against which the whole planet has come. We all find ourselves up against a wall of impending doom—and potential hope.




Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Finger on the Button


If we had a nickel for everyone who has muttered some variation on “I worry about Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button,” we could finance an anti-Trump Super-PAC. 

Obviously the temperament of the leader of any nuclear nation matters deeply. But there will be moments when it matters not whether the leader is sober and restrained, because the action will be elsewhere, further down the chain of military command and control. Thousands of military personnel around the world have access to nuclear weapons. We are told that battlefield commanders of the Pakistani army deployed in Kashmir are free to unleash their tactical nukes without the command and control of their political leaders.

One of the lesser-known pivotal moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred on a Soviet submarine deep beneath the Atlantic. From an article in the Guardian, October 2012: “In late October, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the decision to sidestep WWIII was taken, not in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the control room of a Soviet submarine under attack by the US fleet. The submarine’s batteries were failing, air conditioning was crippled, communication with Moscow was impossible, and Savitsky, the captain of the ship, was convinced that WWIII had already broken out. He ordered the B-59's ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing against the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force. The launch of the B-59's torpedo (2/3 the power of Hiroshima) required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Vasili Arkhipov, one of the three, was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov's reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer, son of peasant farmers near Moscow, had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save K-19, a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998. What saved us was not only Arkhipov’s clear-headedness under great stress, but the established procedures of the Soviet navy, which were respected by the officers aboard the B-59.”

How bizarre, this barely acknowledged truth: we all owe our lives to one ethical Russian man, a man already sick unto death with nuclear radiation.

In 1940, speaking of the Nazis and Mussolini, the poet Wallace Stevens wrote of the “absence of any authority except force.” Held up against Trump’s simplistic and bullying bombast, how refreshing are the outspoken convictions of the late Muhammed Ali, who refused to go to Vietnam and kill people with whom he had no quarrel. Too many of us prefer the comforting lie that soldiers in Vietnam died for our freedom. Has not the absence of any authority except force, with a few quiet intervals, been a constant ever since?

The most frightening element in our present world situation is not only that nuclear weapons could slip out of the control of national leaders, but also that there is no non-military endgame in sight for many contemporary conflicts. Terrorists multiply faster than we can kill them with our drones. The United States especially seems to know only the endless use of overwhelming force, actual or potential. The two major candidates for president, sadly, share this empty lack of vision, one dangerously habituated to military options, the other dangerously inexperienced in their use. There is no vision of other, better ways to stabilize an unstable planet, such as increased humanitarian aid, adherence to international law, and non-violent processes of reconciliation.

We are a young, great, and dynamic nation, made so by the genius of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. Our original sin, still not fully confronted and repented, is our treatment of Native Americans and African slaves. Our contemporary temptations have been materialism and militarism. But our future includes the inevitable end of exceptionalism.  While we may persist with our nativist pride in our freedom and prosperity, the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin got it right: “The age of nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the earth.” The three greatest challenges we face are global in scope and require global cooperation: climate, food, and nuclear weapons. We’re all in this together.

That “common sense” is lacking among the nuclear powers. Instead, they are playing a game of chicken that accelerates toward the purest folly. However effectively Mr. Obama represented us in his visit to Hiroshima, there was a haunting distance between his rhetoric and the obscenely expensive renewal of our nuclear arsenal that our government is planning. No matter whom we choose to allow access to the nuclear button, before America can “become great again,” we need national repentance and reflection. Perhaps this will yield a new vision of our commonality and interdependence with all peoples. If we can grow into that understanding, we will no longer need anyone’s finger on the nuclear button.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Inevitability


Nuclear war is coming. Our officials are currently increasing the chances of that.

I only write ominous op-ed pieces like this in the spirit of hoping I’m an inaccurate prophet. But I’m unable to avoid the difficult conclusion that nuclear war, absent an immediate, fundamental, worldwide change in attitude, is an inevitable part of our future. It could be weeks, months, or years away. But it is coming.

It could break out at any moment between India and Pakistan, the most likely scenario at present. Pakistan is deploying tactical nuclear weapons controlled by local commanders on the front lines in Kashmir, as if the near-miss of the Cuban crisis of 1962 had never happened. War could almost as likely start between NATO and Russia. It might begin with an accident, a misinterpretation of computer blips, a terrorist act, a careless or calculated overreach by a dictator, or a troubled officer with access to sequestered codes. There are too many weapons of too many sizes connected by too many complex but imperfect electronic systems to too many fallible human beings.

If it happens, all our incremental steps toward a semblance of world order will disappear in a few minutes of unimaginable destruction, to be replaced by a barbaric chaos where medical facilities are overwhelmed and water and food supplies are contaminated. Those still alive at the periphery of the blasts will envy those annihilated at the center.

The effects will be experienced around the world, even from a so-called “regional” war. As the ash and soot and radioactive particles from the detonations rise into the upper atmosphere and disperse upon the winds, we will learn just how small a planet we inhabit together—a lethal lesson with no do-over.

The political fallout will be equally grave and far-reaching. Those leaders who made lukewarm but ineffectual efforts to control the weapons, who paid lip service to non-proliferation treaties, who made high-minded speeches while convinced that disarmament initiatives would mean the end of their electability, will feel a remorse that screams within like the howling mobs that will surround their offices and palaces demanding to know why the leaders let disaster happen.

Not a day goes by that I do not ponder why it has not happened already. However ignored, this issue has hung over our lives like a gray pall. Working to prevent nuclear war has provided invaluable moments of shared hope, but feelings of foreboding have dominated. Morbid preoccupation seems less neurotic than total denial. Anyone who admits the urgency of this issue cringes and waits and wonders when, say, the radio goes temporarily dead—has it finally happened? There’s also the magical thinking that says that since it has not yet happened, there may indeed be miraculous hidden forces at work, helping us avoid the worst until we grow mature enough to realize our folly.

History suggests to us that divine intervention will not prevent the worst. It did not stop the Nazi holocaust. Nuclear weapons were conceived and created by people. People are equally capable of realizing that such weapons have not led, and cannot lead, to the global security we seek. It is this logical conclusion, sidestepped and diluted by hundreds of thousands of “experts,” but clear enough to the average 10-year-old, that can be the shared basis of universally applied, reciprocal negotiations toward absolute and total abolition. The world would rejoice in relief if it happened.

Meanwhile we remain stubbornly blind. How much more deeply could we fail our 10-year-olds than by introducing them to a world where such hideous and unmerited suffering hangs over them? The bumper-sticker question persists: do we hate our enemies more than we love our children?

We have kept these weapons at the ready as our primary way to avoid looking at our own darkness. We have projected evil motives upon a series of less-than-fully-human stereotypes, from the toothy, sadistic, slant-eyed Orientals (suddenly transformed back into agonized human beings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), to brutal, corrupt, vodka-swilling Soviets, to bearded, misogynistic Islamic thugs. And the real people behind these crude and false stereotypes have projected the same malevolence onto us. Out of this “us-and-them” animosity has arisen the systemic evil of world-destroying weapons.

Our mutual fear can only be mastered by living the golden rule common to all major religions, of doing as you would wish to be done by. Refusal to heed this practical advice has borne a perverse shadow-version of the universal rule of interdependence: if you do harm unto me, I will destroy you utterly—even if it also destroys me in the process!

We need to see, with the same visceral fright that we respond to a poisonous snake rearing up and baring its dripping fangs, the immediacy of the danger we face.

On this earth the universe has tried an experiment in consciousness, an experiment in learning to see what causal conditions lead to life and what lead to death.

We have been gifted with the capacity to see. Instead, we are very close to doing ourselves in. We ignore the life-affirming realism of Jesus, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King in favor of the illusory “realism” of Kissinger, Cheney, Trump and Cruz. Millions on the planet continue to work their hearts out to wake people up to reasonable alternatives based in common interest and common sense.

May they prove my pessimism wrong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ground Zero is Everywhere


The philosopher Krishnamurti once asserted that we are each totally responsible for the whole world. Global climate change, among other issues, has made this provocation seem more and more undeniable. It is impossible to shift elsewhere the responsibility we each bear for our own environmental footprint. There is no way not to make a difference.

The amount of psychic energy that Americans have invested in our current presidential race suggests that citizens feel so weighed down by the burden of our multiple challenges that we invest our preferred candidates with magical powers. We pledge our allegiance to whatever authoritative, or authoritarian, parent figure we assume can best tackle threats too large and amorphous for any one of us to get our arms around.

When Senator Sanders makes it an explicit theme of his campaign that he cannot achieve a political revolution alone, he’s acknowledging a condition of interdependence and shared responsibility that is not only domestic but also global—a new and unavoidable level of civic engagement. While his major issue has been the need for greater citizen involvement in fighting income inequality, other challenges that candidates have addressed more reluctantly also require a different level of participation. Over a half-century ago we came within a hairbreadth of annihilation as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To some extent the U.S. and Russia have taken its lessons to heart, with improved communication between their leaders and welcome cutbacks from the grotesque numbers of warheads that had been deployed on both sides.

Now India and Pakistan have chosen to ignore the grave lessons of the Cuban near-disaster of 1962. Unable to resolve a conflict over territory in Kashmir extending back to the partition of the two nations in the late 1940s, a conflict that has already resulted in three wars, Pakistan has deployed tactical nuclear weapons on their border with India. These weapons are under the control not of the head of state, but of local commanders. Should the region slide into a nuclear war and subsequent nuclear winter, it would affect the entire earth. Like it or not, ground zero is now everywhere.  “Over there” has become “here.”

Broad anthropological studies and world gatherings of scientists (see the 1986 Seville Statement) have asserted that we humans are not doomed by our biology to behave violently. Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature presents a hopeful spectrum of global trends toward less violence and war. Pinker asserts that the present moment is one of the most peaceful eras in all of history. Sadly, this must still be qualified by the phrase “relatively speaking.”

A recent issue of the New Yorker carries a riveting report on the heroic efforts of activists to smuggle tons of paper records out of the offices of Assad’s security services, records which document with Nazi-like bureaucratic zeal the horrific war crimes of the Syrian regime. Human cruelty, as the survivors of Assad’s torture chambers attest, can become truly devilish in its creativity. In the South Sudan, tribesmen have been using the rape of children, including infants, as a weapon of war. The sadism of Sudanese soldiers, the keepers of Abu Graib, or the Assad functionaries who blowtorch and castrate dissidents testify to the distance we have yet to travel if our small planet is to become a place where each is responsible for all and love really does trump hate.

Torture and rape are unbearable enough, but a nuclear war anywhere could throw billions of people into the misery of worldwide starvation. It is a dangerous illusion to assume that our political leaders and foreign policy experts will magically prevent apocalypse—that the generals on the front lines in Pakistan or anywhere else are sufficiently trained and disciplined never to fall into fatal error. With each further deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons, weapons that the United States and other nuclear powers are also developing, the temptation grows to cross the nuclear threshold. As Lao Tzu said, “if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” All nations share an interest in stepping back from a catastrophe where victory is a mirage that disguises defeat for all.

One presidential candidate, until he changed his mind after a couple of days of negative feedback, rashly proposed that Japan and South Korea be encouraged to become new members of the nuclear club.  And even as President Obama convened an international conference to discuss the sequester of fissile materials against terrorists, he has also quietly agreed to an obscenely expensive long-term renewal of U.S. nuclear weapons systems. Instead, our country could still set an example for India and Pakistan, helping them understand how dangerous it would be if they repeated the same folly into which we drifted during the Missile Crisis of 1962. Setting an example demands that citizens become more engaged with foreign policy, acknowledge that there is good and evil in all of us, and bear the truth that ground zero is everywhere on one small planet.