Imagine this: One day a van pulls up in front of your home. Two men in dark suits come to your door. They show you their U.S. Department of Defense credentials. They tell you that in the van there’s a tiger they intend to put in your attic. What they’re doing, they say, is for your own security. Trust us, they add, the tiger won’t bother you unless we let it loose; and we won’t do that unless we’re certain it’s necessary.
How would you respond? Would you say OK? And if you say no and they say they aren’t here to ask your permission and then put the beast in your attic, would you simply reconcile yourself to the situation and live your life as if nothing has happened?
Perhaps you’ve tumbled to the analogy. You and I have lived our lives under the threat of nuclear annihilation. The tiger in our attic needs to get loose only once and it will surely kill us, along with everyone and everything we cherish. No one asked our permission to put it there or keep it there, but it is there, and incredibly, we live as if our lives are normal. If the human race manages to outlast nuclear weapons, those alive then will ask, “How can we make sense of such behavior? Those people must have been sleepwalking through life.”
This year I’ve been facilitating, sometimes with my fellow nuclear disarmament activists Michael Niemann and Estelle Voeller, discussions about nuclear war and peace. A project of Peace House and supported by a grant from Oregon Humanities, these Community Conversations are one vehicle for educating the public about the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. One thing we talk about is why we rarely think about the possibility that, any day, a decision by any one of a handful of national leaders, or perhaps a confusing signal by our early warning systems (this has happened several times), or an accidental missile launch (we’ve narrowly avoided this event as well) will destroy humankind.
The answers are instructive. With the exception of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, most people say the subject never intruded on their consciousness. To my dismay, without prompting many don’t even remember the extraordinary citizens movement of the 1980s that changed Ronald Reagan’s mind about fighting a nuclear war and ended the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms race. And then there’s the sense that we can’t change this aspect of our lives, so there’s no point in worrying about it.
Both the unobtrusiveness of this dreadful reality and the sense of powerlessness in its face are triumphs of the nuclear priesthood. The constant accrual of power is the driving force of our military establishment, and neither Republican nor Democratic Presidents have wished to curb it by relinquishing the illusion of power our nuclear arsenal confers on them.
Only we can put an end to this evil. And the treaty I cited, negotiated under UN auspices last year and opened for the signatures of nations on September 20, gives us an organizing tool even more powerful than the Nuclear Freeze, which catalyzed the successful citizen protests of the 1980s. Naturally, our government opposed the treaty from its inception, which is why you probably don’t know it exists. Now you do.
We must restart the grassroots movement, this time with the demand that nuclear weapons be abolished. How? Sign the treaty.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.