Life on the Nuclear Edge
In this issue, on the twentieth anniversary of the June 12, 1982, march
of a million people in Manhattan's Central Park protesting nuclear arms,
we publish an appeal calling on the public to demand that the United
States commit itself, together with the other nuclear powers, to the
abolition of nuclear weapons--and to take prompt, concrete steps toward
that goal. The appeal will be introduced in Congress by Representative
Ed Markey as a resolution on June 11.
As it happens, the cloud of nuclear danger is blacker at this moment
than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear danger has
spread, as it was destined to as long as the United States and the other
cold-war-era nuclear powers insisted on holding on to their arsenals.
Now the grim drama is being played out in a new locality, South Asia.
The hatred is not ideological but religious and ethnic. The millions of
potential victims are not the rich and powerful but the poorest of the
poor. The antagonists, partitioned in 1947, are twins from a single
zygote. Nuclear suicide would also be fratricide.
The United States, which actually did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki what the
South Asians so far only threaten to do to each other, and which for
more than a half-century has been the trailblazer in the development and
rationalization of nuclear weapons, cannot condescend to the newcomers
to the game. At the end of May the United States announced that it will
be building a plant for the construction of brand-new nuclear weapons,
to be ready for use in 2020. And George W. Bush has announced that
deterrence no longer works--"pre-emptive" attacks will be the order of
the day for our military. Such are the actions of the US officials now
on their way to South Asia bearing scenarios showing the awfulness of
nuclear war and counsels of "restraint."
But all that doesn't prevent us from noticing that India and Pakistan
are writing new chapters in the book of nuclear folly. When India tested
five nuclear weapons in 1998 and declared itself a full-fledged nuclear
power, it proved, in the words of its Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh,
that there was to be no "nuclear apartheid" in the world. Now it seems
bent on proving that there is no apartheid for nuclear madness either.
One of South Asia's distinctive contributions to the field is a
flippancy in discussing nuclear danger, adding a new dimension to Hannah
Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil." Early in the crisis, General
Padmanabhan, India's army chief, commented, "If we have to go to war,
jolly good! If we don't, we will still manage." Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg,
retired chief of Pakistan's armed forces, commented, "I don't know what
you're worried about. You can die crossing the street, hit by a car, or
you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday, anyway." Die,
yes, but must we all be killed?
Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said that
Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, should not use nuclear
weapons because "I'm sure he doesn't want to kill all the Pakistanis."
Of course, it would not be Musharraf but Indian Prime Minister Atal
Behari Vajpayee and Defense Minister Fernandes who would kill all the
Pakistanis, in retaliation. Have they reflected that a threat to kill
all Pakistanis is a threat of genocide, the gravest of all crimes
against humanity? There was no sign that they had. The world should tell
Meanwhile, the human imagination, brought once more to the brink,
fitfully tries--and mostly fails--to take in the news that 12 million
people (according to a Pentagon estimate) might die immediately in a
nuclear war in South Asia. Millions more would die slowly. (One
television station labeled the story with the logo "Nuclear
Distraction." Presumably, the danger of nuclear war was breaking its
concentration on the squabbles between the FBI and the CIA over
September 11 warnings.)
Yet from South Asia there also came at least one voice that offered the
imagination something to hold on to, a way to begin to grasp the awful
prospect--the voice of novelist Arundhati Roy. Her foreign friends asked
why she doesn't leave New Delhi. Doesn't she think the threat of nuclear
war is real? "It is," she answered, "but where shall we go? If I go away
and everything and every one--every friend, every tree, every home,
every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved--is
incinerated, how shall I live on? Who shall I love? And who will love me
And so she and friends have decided to stay. "We huddle together. We
realize how much we love each other. And we think what a shame it would
be to die now. Life's normal only because the macabre has become normal.
While we wait for rain, for football, for justice, the old generals and
the eager boy-anchors on TV talk of first-strike and second-strike
capabilities as though they're discussing a family board game. My
friends and I discuss Prophecy, the documentary about the bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.... The dead bodies choking the river. The
living stripped of skin and hair.... We remember especially the man who
just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like
that. As stains on staircases.... The last question every visiting
journalist always asks me: Are you writing another book?
"That question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as
though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature--the
whole of human civilization--means nothing to the fiends who run the
world? What kind of book should I write?
"It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on
hairtrigger alert. It's all of us. That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether
they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter
the meaning of life itself."
If the world can attune itself to this voice, it will abolish nuclear
weapons, and there will be no nuclear war.