Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.
—John F. Kennedy, U.N. Speech, 1961
In1984, when I started volunteering for the organization Beyond War, it was not so difficult to gather an audience in a living room and have a dialogue about the obsolescence of war.
The horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had not yet faded.
Short-range tactical nuclear weapons were proliferating on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Most citizens were willing to entertain the notion that not only could no one win a full-scale nuclear war, but there were three lesser levels of war that humans had to prevent: even a limited nuclear war could bring on “nuclear winter.” A conventional war could bring in the nuclear powers. Even small “local” conflicts could escalate into general conventional war and then upward to the nuclear level. War, all war, was a potential extinction machine. It still is.
To everyone’s immense surprise, the Soviet empire imploded five years later. When it did dissolve, thousands of peace activists assumed their job was done, and looked forward to the “peace dividend” sure to ensue.
In 2011, the number of nuclear countries has risen to nine. Pakistan and India repeat the folly of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Will Pakistan remain stable enough to keep its warheads from falling into the wrong hands? Will the generals in charge of them now, both in Pakistan and in India, act with restraint? Jonathan Schell asserts that the potential of a nuclear weapon being used against people is greater than it has been at any time since 1945. The thread holding up Kennedy’s Sword of Damocles has further attenuated.
Yawns of indifference. Nuclear war, accidental or deliberate, just isn’t a front burner issue for people. Whatever grabs our attention today seems far more indefinite than what grabbed us in 1984, while the demands for that attention are a hundred times more diverse. We are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as Eliot wrote sixty years before the advent of e-mail.
When we do look up from our laptops and IPhones, we cannot avoid the interconnection of all our major challenges. Pull on any string in the gigantic ball of issues, and the unraveling reveals how densely tangled each issue is with all the others. The ingredients of nuclear weapons derive from the operation of nuclear power plants. These plants are themselves potential terrorist targets. At the same time they hold out hope for reliable non-CO2-emitting energy, when natural disasters or human errors do not overwhelm their safeguards.
The growing population of the earth demands a higher standard of living, even if providing it will overshoot—has already overshot—the carrying capacity of the planet. Meanwhile the United States military, the presumed guardian of the vaunted U.S. standard of living, is the biggest user of unrenewable fossil fuels on earth. One economic fact stands out: our military budget contains a great many more zeros in it than the total amount it would take to resolve the very challenges that will almost inevitably be the causes of future wars: the global provision of safe drinking water, birth control, medical care, nourishing food, education.
Why are our representatives unable to act upon such urgent yet beneficial measures of prevention? We need look no further than the behavior of the U.S. congress during the recent speech by the head of a foreign government.
Yanked by invisible strings, the entire joint session rose twenty-seven times to applaud unanimously. Was the speech really that eloquent? The point is not the power of the Israel lobby, but a more general one: the insidious pressure of the herd instinct. The puppetry comes from our dislike of making an independent assessment of reality and responding autonomously. Instead we look left and right for cues, fearful of being perceived as disloyal.
But we the people still hold the string that can lead us out of our labyrinth. One model is Tahrir Square in Egypt, where the peaceful involvement of hundreds of thousands forced positive structural change in a matter of weeks. Until Americans start flexing the unused muscle of citizen activism, the nuclear sword, the climate change sword, the global starvation sword and all the other swords will go on hanging above us by the thinnest of threads.