Ending the Madness

Nothing left to fight for on a dead planet

By Dr. Helen Caldicott and Tim Wright

The world's most militarily powerful nation has a new commander-in-chief. Although decidedly less hawkish than his predecessor, Barack Obama mustn't be trusted with the control of 10,000 nuclear weapons. It's mad that any individual has the power to destroy the planet at the press of a button. Yet the American people, in electing Obama to the top job, empowered him to do precisely that. Any person who supports this extraordinarily dangerous situation is practicing psychic numbing.

Thankfully, President Obama -- unlike any Oval Office occupant before him -- has had the good sense to make the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons a key foreign policy objective. On the campaign trail last year, he told a crowd of adoring fans that disarmament "is profoundly in America's interest and the world's interest." And already he has begun making good on his promise, sending Cold War heavyweight Henry Kissinger to Moscow for important talks on arms reductions.

But will Obama have the knack to convince Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and other nuclear-armed leaders to jump aboard the peace train and aim for zero nuclear weapons? Only time will tell if he has it in him to steer the world towards sanity and survival. But it's unlikely the new American leader will pursue nuclear disarmament fervently unless there's public pressure on him to do so.

This is why earth-loving people everywhere must recommit themselves to the campaign for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Abolishing nukes is just as important as averting catastrophic climate change, and yet today only the latter threat gets any air time -- and too little at that. It seems we no longer fear nuclear apocalypse as we did in the dim Cold War days. Yet the threat remains and we ignore it at our peril. Unless we take control and ban the bomb soon, a nuclear arsenal will surely be used, and millions -- not thousands -- will suffer the consequences.

Surely we have the energy to mobilize for abolition? At the height of the anti-nuclear movement, millions took to the streets to demand disarmament. Protesters camped at nuclear storage sites for years on end. Others went on month-long hunger strikes. Schools, hospitals, and town shires declared themselves nuclear-weapon-free zones, even in countries which didn't have or intend to acquire the bomb. Sadly, however, those days have long since passed. Our zeal has all but evaporated, when it should only have intensified: the nuclear threat, rather than fading, has worsened.

Today's nukes are on average two hundred times deadlier than the single A-bombs which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The nuclear-armed states are modernizing their arsenals and have expanded their plans to use them, including pre-emptively against non-nuclear targets. On top of this, the clan of nuclear states has grown and now includes Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Of course, there have recently been a number of admirable actions for abolition around the globe: strikes at the University of California opposing the Los Alamos laboratory, thousands of Italians petitioning to get rid of US nukes stationed on their soil, medical students demonstrating in troubled Kashmir, mayors mobilizing for the last bomb to be dismantled by 2020. But activism of this kind is all too rare considering the gravity of the nuclear threat. Why is this so?

One reason, we surmise, is that anti-nuclear crusaders of the past have, for various reasons, become today's climate change campaigners. On the face of it, this isn't such a terrible thing: climate change, like the bomb, threatens life on earth. But both menaces must be tackled with equal vigor and passion: indifference and inaction on one front will, ultimately, render efforts on the other pointless. After all, there will be nothing left to fight for on a dead planet.

In an afternoon

There are some notable differences between climate change and nuclear war. For example, both are capable of killing off the human race and all other living organisms, but only nuclear weapons could do it in a day. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is part of a new wave of conservatives championing nuclear disarmament, highlighted this difference in 2007. "A nuclear disaster will not hit at the speed of a glacier melting. It will hit with a blast. It will not hit with the speed of the atmosphere warming but of a city burning. Clearly, the attention focused on nuclear weapons should be as prominent as that of global climate change."

With 26,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine countries, many of them on hair-trigger alert, the risk they'll be used again -- either by accident or design -- is terrifyingly high. The 18 Nobel laureates who move the minute hand of the infamous Doomsday Clock backwards and forwards through peaceful and volatile times believe we're currently just five minutes from midnight. Complacency is not an option. Nuclear disarmament must, once again, cement itself in the public consciousness and move its way to the top of the political agenda. In countries with nuclear weapons, it should become an election-deciding issue: any candidate not promising to work for abolition should stand no chance of victory.

Recent opinion polls show that in every nuclear-weapon nation a majority of citizens support the call for the time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons. But, so far, this huge popular mandate hasn't translated into action by governments anywhere. Our politicians must listen to their constituents and seize this historic opportunity to cure us of the nuclear madness that afflicts the world.

Otherwise, what will be next? Nuclear weapons pointing at us from outer space, as some US officials are planning? Terrorist groups obtaining the bomb to cause devastation on a scale far greater than on September 11? The only way to guard against such eventualities is to ban these weapons of terror now, or else the escalation towards obliteration will continue. We owe it to succeeding generations to do so.

Acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy said it best in an essay she wrote shortly after her country's first nuclear test in 1997. "The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made....Look at it this way," she warned. "This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon."

The price of complacency

Climate change and nuclear war differ in another important respect. While rising global temperatures can be attributed to the actions -- and inaction -- of many governments, corporations and individuals across the globe (destroying the environment is very much a joint human enterprise), nuclear war could be brought about by one man acting alone. The head of state in most nuclear-armed countries has the sole authority to unleash his entire nuclear arsenal, guaranteeing the death of millions, including his own people. A decision to press the button could be made in a moment of rage, fear, or pure insanity.

Why should Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, the UK's Gordon Brown, China's Hu Jintao and Israel's Ehud Olmert, among others, have the power to quite literally move mountains, melt cities and blot out the sun's rays? Who are they to decide the fate of the world we love and intend passing on, intact and unadulterated, to future generations? If we truly cared for the planet, the global disarmament movement would be thriving today. Instead, it has gone quiet, as if awaiting the next bomb.

Although many young people are admirably committed to curbing climate change, very few have adopted disarmament as their raison d'être. Without young people involved in the movement, what hope is there for the future? And, sadly, many older campaigners have become tired and disheartened after years of fighting for little reward. Flower power has wilted away, militarism triumphing.

In recent years, it has been difficult to mobilize people around an issue they think they have no control over. Even with climate change -- a problem of monumental proportions which could easily seem overwhelming -- most people feel they can make at least some difference. But despite this apparent apathy, the two of us remain hopeful that sooner or later people will notice the elephant in the room, and President Obama's promise of a world free of nuclear weapons will at last be realized. Surely the madness cannot go on forever. The question we must ask ourselves is: Will it take another Hiroshima or Nagasaki for us to wake up and act?

Dr. Helen Caldicott is an author, pediatrician and world-renowned anti-nuclear campaigner. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has named her one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Tim Wright is president of the Peace Organisation of Australia and a board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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