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 them.
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 back?”
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.