Letter From Ground Zero: March 14, 2002

Letter From Ground Zero: March 14, 2002

Letter From Ground Zero: March 14, 2002

The offspring of the Manhattan Project are circling back toward Manhattan.


New York, the city in which I was born and grew up and have lived all my life, and in which my children were born and have now grown up, was also the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The first practical steps toward building the bomb were taken at Columbia University, where the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, among others, did preliminary experiments demonstrating that a chain reaction of nuclear fission could be initiated.

Even in the first days of the nuclear age, Szilard, who, after helping create the bomb spent the rest of his life agitating to get rid of it, understood right away that the makers of the bomb could one day be its victims. In 1945 he wrote, "The position of the United States in the world may be adversely affected by their existence…. Clearly if such bombs are available, it will not be necessary to bomb our cities from the air in order to destroy them. All that is necessary is to place a comparatively small number in major cities and detonate them at some later time…. The long coastline, the structure of our society, and the heterogeneity of our population may make effective controls of such 'traffic' virtually impossible."

The next stop on the road to the bomb was Chicago, where, under the Chicago University sports stadium, the first chain reaction was loosed; and then it was on to Los Alamos, where the bomb was built, and to the Valley of the Journey of Death, where, on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was detonated. Still, the New York origins of the bomb were preserved for history in the name given to the enterprise: the Manhattan Project.

Now it's fifty-seven long years later. A lot has happened–among other things, acquisition of the bomb by seven other nations, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet collapse and September 11. But humanity is still toiling through the Valley of the Journey of Death, currently with a burden on its collective back of 32,000 nuclear weapons. Not until this year, however, has Szilard's prophecy returned to disturb the sleep of New Yorkers. Time magazine recently disclosed that in October federal officials received a plausible report that a nuclear attack on New York by terrorists was in the works–perhaps with a ten-kiloton weapon they were told was missing from the Russian arsenal. "It was brutal," an official said of the experience. Meanwhile, we learned that the Bush Administration had set up a "shadow government" of officials hidden away in underground bunkers to keep the government operating in case of a nuclear attack on Washington.

The alarm proved–thank God!–to be false. But everyone knows that the next time it could be real. The news has prompted new mental exercises. A full-scale nuclear holocaust does not invite much detailed thought. Everything will be gone. What is there to think about? The reported peril from one bomb to New York is a different matter. Thought and imagination, tutored by September 11, got more specific–more visceral, more tactical. At Hiroshima, I knew, survivors on the outer edges of the sphere of annihilation directed their steps into the countryside. There would be no such luck for the injured of sea-girt Manhattan, escapable only by a few bridges and tunnels. The psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton has quoted the description by a Hiroshima grocer of the people fleeing the city: "At a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back…they held their arms [in front of them]…and their skin–not only on their hands but on their faces and bodies too–hung down." Not many people in that condition will get through, say, the Brooklyn Battery tunnel. When the Trade Center was hit on September 11, some people had the presence of mind to steal kayaks from sports stores and paddle to New Jersey. But these were vain thoughts, futile plans. Even this level of nuclear destruction–"low" in comparison to a general holocaust–seems to involve the imagination in defeat. Does someone want to crumple up this great and beautiful city and throw it into history's trashcan like a piece of Kleenex? Does someone want to put an end to the rough-edged but sweet New York life we have here? It appears that they may and that soon they may possess the means.

With these fears pervading the atmosphere, other news of the bomb was arriving–news not of nuclear attacks the United States might suffer but of nuclear attacks the United States might deliver upon others. Reports of the Administration's new Nuclear Posture Review reveal that it is not going to reduce the strategic arsenal down to about 2,000, as recently announced by George W. Bush; it is going to warehouse the "cut" weapons. It has also drawn up plans to expand nuclear weapons production, to design and build new varieties of nuclear warheads and, most shocking, to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries: Russia, China, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Other countries are looking on with alarm–fearful that a monster, driven mad by righteous fury and dizzy with its own power, is rising out of the ashes of September 11 to bellow destruction to the world.

In short, at exactly the moment New York and Washington, reeling from the attacks of September 11, were awakening to their helplessness in the face of possible nuclear attack, our government was moving to relegitimize the use of nuclear weapons in general and throwing down the nuclear gauntlet to the Middle East in particular–the very part of the world from which New York and Washington and other cities most fear attack.

Did the decision-makers in Washington reflect, when they gave themselves the right to launch nuclear attacks on the Middle East and elsewhere, that they might inspire those targeted to do likewise to us? Did they forget that there is no defense against nuclear arms and no rescue for those attacked by them? Leo Szilard was right fifty-seven years ago. In the long run, nuclear destructive power is available to all, just as it menaces all. No country is omnipotent. None are invulnerable. What the United States has done to others at Hiroshima and Nagasaki–and what we may yet do to others at Teheran and Tripoli–others can do to us.

The offspring of the Manhattan Project are circling back toward Manhattan. Two towers of blue light rise where the towers of glass and steel once rose. What monument would be conceivable as the gravestone of all New York? What can we do to save our beloved, injured, perishable city?

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