Power Over the Ultimate Evil

 Nov/Dec 2003

By Jonathan Granoff

There are approximately 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 90 percent of which are possessed by Russia and the United States. The United States has about 11,000 nuclear weapons, and the Russians have about 19,500 nuclear weapons. Thousands of these are Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles; they are armed, targeted and poised, waiting for three short computer signals to fire. These hair trigger devices represent the devastation of approximately 100,000 Hiroshimas and pose a horrific threat to life. From the moment the early-warning systems cry danger (real or cyber-glitch), the U.S. government allows itself less than twenty five minutes before launch keys are turned in retaliation; experts believe that the Russian government allows itself less than ten.

The nuclear weapons which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the equivalent of 15,000 and 12,000 tons of TNT (trinitrotoluene) respectively. Bombs in the megaton (equivalent to a million tons of TNT) and multiple megaton range are now in the arsenals, and some are even in excess of twenty megatons (20,000,000 tons of TNT). A five-megaton weapon would represent more explosive power than all the bombs used in World War II, and a twenty-megaton bomb more than all the explosives used in all wars in the history of the world.

Over time, through accident or design, human fallibility will cause the unacceptable use of these weapons. Additionally, the possession by some states is the strongest stimulant to others to acquire them.

In a stunning assertion of militarism and U.S. unilateralism over international cooperation and the rule of law, the Senate voted on September 17, 2003, mostly along party lines, to fund steps toward the development of new nuclear weapons. Some of these weapons are called “mini-nukes” and are ready to be integrated into conventional war fighting plans while others are modifications of existing weapons designed for new targets. This funding represents an enormous shift in the basic rationale for the production and use of nuclear weapons.

Previously, deterrence doctrine was designed to ensure that nuclear weapons would not be used, or at least only used as an absolute last resort. The bizarre logic was that if each nuclear equipped party has enough weapons to inflict unacceptable damage to the other-even after being hit with a nuclear attack-then neither would actually dare to use their arsenal.

In the new doctrine, nuclear weapons are viewed as usable, as a standard part of military strategy like other explosives. Simultaneously, this shift challenges the moral taboo against use and undermines the commitments made under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), now with 188 member States, to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arsenals.

The reality of such contemplated use of nuclear weapons has yet to dent the public debate. Like the response to the banality of evil that made possible the Holocaust’s Final Solution, today’s world remains numb to the banality of nuclear weapons.

Until now, there has been an international consensus that the proliferation of nuclear weapons posed a paramount threat to the security of the world. President Bush has challenged this presumption. In his 2003 State of the Union address he said, “The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.” The emphasis has shifted from the weapons themselves to concern for regimes, and the policies that arise from this shift are dramatic. Instead of a policy of containment and elimination of weapons through international law, we are now seeing a policy of “regime change” based on U.S. unilateral decision making. This is very hazardous to international order, and we are only beginning to see its consequences in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Moreover, rather than working to fulfill treaty commitments for disarmament, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review of 2002 calls for proliferation:

The need is clear for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will . be able . to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground nuclear testing if required.

The U.S. National Security Strategy emphasizes that the United States will take anticipatory preemptive action. Since the Nuclear Posture Review calls for incorporating nuclear weapons into conventional war fighting capabilities, we now have a doctrine that can rationalize the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s response should come as no surprise. It is easy to understand why the rest of the world is so afraid. We should all be afraid.

Mohammed El Baradi, Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently stated the situation clearly:

These are double standards. On the one hand, the U.S. says that the proliferation of nuclear weapons must be fought. On the other, it perfects its own arsenal. This is not acceptable. The US Administration demands from other states not to have any nuclear weapons, while it fills its own arsenals. If we do not give up such double standards, we will have even more nuclear powers. We are at a turning point now.

The steady, albeit slow, progress in building peaceful relations based on the rule of law has reversed, just as fear and uncertainty have been emphasized. Various arguments are used to rationalize this intentional process: fighting terrorism in the wake of 9-11, eliminating despotic rulers, stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But actions, such as instituting a war without clear UN Security Council authorization, speak louder than any doctrines.

The extent of the hazard has not been grasped and political arguments have not swayed the hearts of the people nor the decision makers. Worse, the irrationality of the quest to address the problem by building more weapons of mass destruction remains inadequately challenged.

Neither reason nor imagination is sufficient to grasp the magnitude of what we have created. The International Court of Justice, in its landmark opinion in 1996 on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons stated: “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire eco-system of the planet.” The Court unanimously concluded that there is a legal duty to negotiate the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons exemplify a thoroughly modern dilemma where the means of pursuing security undermine the end of obtaining security. As Thoreau said, “Improved means to unimproved ends.”

The Mayor of Nagasaki pleads with us to understand the human dimensions of one relatively small atomic bomb:

The explosion of the atomic bomb generated an enormous fireball, 200 meters in radius, almost as though a small sun had appeared in the sky. The next instant, a ferocious blast and wave of heat assailed the ground with a thunderous roar. The surface temperature of the fireball was about 7,000 degrees C, and the heat rays that reached the ground were over 3,000 degrees C. The explosion instantly killed or injured people within a two-kilometer radius of the hypocenter, leaving innumerable corpses charred like clumps of charcoal and scattered in the ruins near the hypocenter. In some cases, not even a trace of the person’s remains could be found. A wind (over 680 miles per hour) slapped down trees and demolished most buildings. Even iron-reinforced concrete structures were so badly damaged that they seemed to have been smashed by a giant hammer. The fierce flash of heat meanwhile melted glass and left metal objects contorted like strands of taffy, and the subsequent fires burned the ruins of the city to ashes. Nagasaki became a city of death where not even the sound of insects could be heard.

After a while, countless men, women and children began to gather for a drink of water at the banks of the nearby Urakami River, their hair and clothing scorched and their burnt skin hanging off in sheets like rags. Begging for help, they died one after another in the water or in heaps on the banks. Then radiation began to take its toll, killing people like a scourge (of) death expanding in concentric circles from the hypocenter. Four months after the atomic bombing, 74,000 people were dead and 75,000 had suffered injuries, that is, two thirds of the city population had fallen victim to this calamity that came upon Nagasaki like a preview of the Apocalypse.

When Mahatma Gandhi heard of this horror he pondered: “What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.”

The psychologist Robert Jay Lifton has described part of the cost to the small handful of nuclear weapons states as “a collective form of psychic numbing.” Our readiness to unleash, in short order, devices that will rapidly transform cities into concentration camp-like ovens numbs our moral sensitivities. These weapons are ovens with wings.

Even George Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat who originated the Cold War containment policy toward the Soviet Union, a man not normally associated with moral admonitions, warns us:

The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings-against people we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence is not for us to establish-and, in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity-an indignity of monstrous dimensions-offered to God!

This expression of human arrogance hides a fundamental weakness, a failure of respect for the power of love, God’s greatest gift to us. That power is denied by this threatening violence. This ultimate violence is idolatry without boundary, exalting human ideas and force above the creator’s gift and the very life of the creation.

The violence of threatening to unleash the Apocalypse represents an immorality of vast proportion and calls us to an affirmation of faith of vaster proportion. We cannot be passive in pursuing this capacity. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., burn through the haze of today’s news reports:

The fact that most of the time human beings put the truth about the nature and risks of nuclear war out of their minds because it is too painful and therefore not “acceptable,” does not alter the nature and risks of such war . if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.. I do not wish to minimize the complexity of the problems that need to be faced in achieving disarmament and peace. But I think it is a fact that we shall not have the will, the courage, and insight to deal with such matters unless in this field we are prepared to undergo a mental and spiritual reevaluation-a change of focus which will enable us to see that the things which seem most real and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence of death.. It is not enough to say “We must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it . we have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together-black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslems and Hindus, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.. This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all embracing and unconditional love for all..

Developing this love is not only a personal path to salvation but a necessity for human fulfillment and survival. As King said, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” Our choice is Dante’s hell or a door to ultimate reality.

What must we do?

The first step toward a solution is a sober acknowledgement of the problem and a profound commitment to change.

It is imperative that our goal of obtaining the universal elimination of nuclear weapons be grounded in strong moral positions. Since fear can cloud reason, we must awaken an activism based on an equally strong motivation. For this issue, vision requires courage; thus, spirit matters.

The mystery that placed the power of destruction in the binding forces of the atom has placed the healing power of love in our hearts and further gifted us with both the courage and wisdom to use that power effectively. King’s stand is correct: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.” With faith that we can be guided by and have confidence in our love of life, should we not commit to cause our country to disavow its unlawful, immoral policy of failing to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons? Will you join this call from the conscience of humanity?

We have the choice to respond to this call of conscience. With the help of each, which is a gift in our hands to choose, and the help of God, which is a gift surely granted, we can and will become the change we want to see.

We can change our government’s conduct to reflect our human values. The policies that diminish the threat to use nuclear weapons and lead to their elimination have already been painstakingly negotiated in the NPT. They include a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, deep cuts in the arsenals, reduction of the operational status of the weapons, a diminished role of weapons in policy planning, and negotiations leading to elimination.

The commitments under the NPT are an excellent foundation, but they are certainly not enough. For example, the entire budget for all inspections under the IAEA is less than $90 million per year for the whole world, while the US alone spends more than $97 million per day on our nuclear arsenal. The need for changing economic allocations is obvious.

Compared to what might arise in the future, addressing nuclear weapons is now relatively manageable. There is presently only a small group with arsenals. That group includes Israel, Pakistan and India, who are not in the NPT, and five countries under the treaty-US, UK, China, France, and Russia. The materials needed to make bombs can be monitored and controlled if sufficient funds are spent. The political will to come to very low numbers, and then begin serious negotiations to create a secure regime to move toward abolition, could be galvanized with proper political leadership. It is sufficient to invoke fears of terrorism to generate support to eliminate this threat. Nearly everyone agrees that nothing could be more hazardous than if terrorists gained access to these devices.

If we do not move quickly to curtail this capacity for self-destruction that science has given humanity with this obviously dangerous technology, how do we intend to constrain and control the next generation of weapons of mass destruction? It is time that this technology be subject to law and morality. Nothing less than our humanity and future is at stake.

We need to further awaken the public and generate the political will to fulfill our existing commitments. We need to compel our political leaders to take clear, morally coherent positions and commit to work for abolition.

At a minimum, we must demand that every candidate for national office describe their aspirations and plans to reduce and eliminate the possession and threat of nuclear weapons in every country in the world.

Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute and a member of the Advisory Board of Tikkun.

© 2003 Tikkun Magazine. This article was originally posted on the web at:

This article may be reproduced for purposes of personal scholarship only. For other uses, please contact Tikkun at (510) 644-1200.

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