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A Time for Nuclear Rituals

9 August 2002

In the early 1980s, the days from August 6th to 9th were a special time. For many of us, no task was more urgent than abolishing nuclear weapons. We knew that every weapon ever invented had eventually been used in war. We knew that our own government and others had very specific plans for waging nuclear war. We were convinced that the question of global nuclear war was not If, but simply When. We saw the struggle for nuclear abolition as a struggle for the fate of the earth.

For some of us, abolition was a calling, a mission, perhaps even a religion. Antinuclearism was our creed and faith. Jonathan Schell s book, The Fate of the Earth, was our Bible. August 6th and 9th were our holiest days. Each year at this time, we came together for rituals of remembrance and rededication to our sacred mission. We knew how difficult the struggle would be. We were prepared to celebrate this annual rite for the rest of our lives, if necessary, so we could pass on to our children a nuclear-free world.

Now it all seems like a distant memory. The cold war is long over. Republicans and Democrats alike create rituals of their own, disarmament negotiations and nuclear warhead reductions and nuclear test moratoriums. Along with these symbolic gestures, they give us comforting words about their solemn dedication to ending the nuclear threat.

And they succeed, in the same way that all effective rituals and incantations succeed. They offer reassurance. They produce a sense that the problems that once plagued us with so much anxiety are now safely under control. They create an image of national security. To most Americans, the nuclear threat seems to have vanished. The antinuclear movement seems to be a superfluous anachronism.

Meanwhile, the people we pay with our tax dollars to provide real national security are busy inventing the next generation of nuclear weapons. Now they have the world's fastest computers to test them in cyberspace. Yet they refuse to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, because they know that some day they will want to test them in that huge underground space in Nevada. And soon they plan to put nuclear weapons in outer space.

They no longer make nuclear weapons just down the road from my home, at Rocky Flats. Now they are getting ready to make them at Los Alamos instead. They may be making them there already. This, like so much else about nuclear weaponry, is still kept in tight secrecy. We have nothing to say about it. Democracy fell victim to the atomic bomb even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, as every day since August, 1945, our government's plans for winning wars include an unquestioned willingness to use nuclear weapons. But the new generation of nukes are smaller, more versatile, designed for a wide variety of specialized tasks. They are meant to be part of the integrated computerized network which is supposed to give the U.S. total control of every battlefield.

The atomic bombs of 1945 spawned a fantasy of omnipotent control that still shapes U.S. strategy. Indeed, it is easy to see the whole nuclear phenomenon as a ritual, unconsciously intended to give governments and nations an illusion of global control.

In the U.S., it began as an illusion of control over the Red Menace. Now, we have no communists to fight, no nuclear-armed superpower to oppose us. So our leaders pursue a fantasy of total control over every nation. They look for any nation, large or small, that may possibly be developing their own nukes. If our leaders don't like their leaders, they claim a sacred right to go to war, and to use nuclear weapons if they deem it necessary.

Like every ritual, this one tends to create an imagined world of simplistic absolute truth. We are the good guys with good nukes. Those we label as enemies are the bad guys with bad nukes. Our leaders say that we must threaten to use our good nukes, because there is a remote chance that some day the bad guys may get bad nukes. With perfectly straight faces, they call this policy not only reasonable, but moral. Unless people of conscience act fast, and massively, this ritualized fantasy will soon be acted out in Iraq.

Nuclear fear may have gone away. Nuclear weapons have not. As long as those weapons exist, they will some day be used again. It is still not a question of If, but When. Isn t it time to bring back our own sacred rituals, to dedicate ourselves once again to the abolition?

Ira Chernus
Published by © Ira Chernus

Nuclear weapons - general issues     'War on terrorism' index


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