Are you under 35? If so, you’re the target audience of author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser and the team behind the bomb. Combine a Hollywood documentary, a live rock show, and a political demonstration against nuclear weapons, and you get the bomb, an invigorating multimedia spectacular that has played festivals in New York, Berlin and Glastonbury and may come soon to a venue near you.
“People under 35 have no direct knowledge of living with this existential threat, but they’re starting to think about it now with North Korea and Iran,” said Schlosser, whose 2013 book Command and Control gave rise to the bomb and whose 2001 mega-best seller Fast Food Nation spurred the organic-food movement. “We hope to help start a conversation that puts nuclear weapons back in the public mind and on the public agenda.”
That aim is apparently shared by the Norwegian Nobel committee, which on Friday named the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. ICAN, which claims participation from 468 NGOs in 101 countries, has been working since its founding in 2007 to promote not merely the reduction but the abolition of nuclear weapons. “We can’t threaten to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of security,” Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN, said upon receiving news of the Nobel prize. ICAN helped secure adoption in July of a United Nations nuclear weapons ban treaty, even as all nine of the existing nuclear powers—the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—boycotted the negotiations over the treaty.
The Peace Prize announcement came one day after president Donald Trump reportedly decided to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, contradicting the stated and leaked views of his top national-security advisers, who counseled that the deal was effectively constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Trump told reporters on Thursday that now might be “the calm before the storm.” It was one more unsettling statement from a president who alarmed everyone but his die-hard political base with his September warning at the UN General Assembly that the US might “totally destroy” North Korea, an obvious threat to unleash nuclear weapons and kill millions of civilians to punish the country’s “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un.
If anything underscores the value of outright abolition of nuclear weapons, it is this kind of mad, untrammeled belligerence from the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal. The single scariest thing about Trump as president—topping, admittedly, a long and dire list—is that this violence prone simpleton wields unfettered, unilateral authority to push the nuclear button. As I reported in The Nation in July and others have written elsewhere, both US law and long-standing policy hold that the president and the president alone can order a nuclear attack. Trump need not consult with the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national-security adviser, the Congress or anyone else. He need only summon the aide who carries the nuclear-launch codes (and is never more than a few feet away from any president at all times), verify his identity as president, and give the command. In less than 10 minutes, incomprehensible amounts of death and devastation will take flight, with no way of being called back.
Trump’s unilateral nuclear-launch authority, combined with his vindictive and erratic temperament, poses a clear, immediate danger to the United States and, indeed, humanity. Yet it remains the great unmentionable of American political discourse. Breaking this silence to debate whether this or any president should be entrusted with such awesome and unchecked authority ought to be a transcendent priority for every public official, regardless of their political party, not to mention for the press. Yet the silence continues, even as war with North Korea or Iran or both threatens to erupt—one more measure of the sleepwalking towards disaster that the bomb and the Nobel Prize committee seek to disrupt.
“The danger of nuclear war hasn’t been this great since the 1980s, when the US and Soviet Union almost attacked each other,” Schlosser told The Nation before a staging of the bomb at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco on October 4. “The issue went dormant in the United States after the Cold War, and very little was done to engage with the broad public. Now, everyone who’s aware of the threat has to think of new ways of resistance. We need to create a popular outcry.”
The bomb is an innovative attempt to do so via an overwhelming sensory experience. The audience is surrounded on all sides by eight giant screens. Thumping, very loud electronic music opens the show; the screens offer images of Earth as seen from outer space. Satellites float past. The pace quickens as the screens fill with military parades, thousands and thousands of uniformed soldiers marching in precise, closed ranks, all heading—where? To their unthinking deaths? To glorious triumph? The audience isn’t told. The bomb has no narrator suggesting what to think; you have to figure it out for yourself.
Claustrophobia mingles with excitement as the parading soldiers encircle the audience and the music becomes more ethereal, overlaid with high-pitched, ghostly vocals. Now the parades feature not just soldiers but military equipment—first tanks and rocket launchers, then actual bombs and missiles. The escalation continues as we see image after image of missiles being fired, launching variously from land, ship, plane and submarine. There is an unsettling beauty to the ensuing mushroom clouds, dozens of them, bursting into supernatural hues of orange, red, pink, yellow, white.
A cruelly comic passage follows as US propaganda films from the 1950s and 1960s instruct Americans what to do “if an atomic bomb falls right in their town.” Two kids walking home from school demonstrate the supposed magic formula for survival, just “Duck and Cover.”
The emotional climax of the bomb arrives with a tremendous, enduring roar that pummels the screen to a gray blankness that lasts a very long time. The blankness gives way to scenes of utter destruction in Hiroshima. An aerial view shows a city that is bisected by a river and has literally been leveled, virtually every building reduced to rubble. Then comes a series of photographic still-lifes, motionless faces of survivors in hospital beds, eyes vacant and uncomprehending. At that moment, someone in the darkness of the San Francisco crowd gasped.
More history follows—the Manhattan Project, Einstein’s theory of relativity—but soon we return to the present day. Russian president Vladimir Putin announces the acquisition of more nuclear weapons; India and North Korea proudly hail successful tests of their arsenals. On CNN, candidate Trump tells Anderson Cooper that, “it’s inevitable” other countries will obtain nuclear weapons. “Either that,” Trump adds, “or we get rid of them all.”
The last spoken words come from US president Ronald Reagan: “We seek the total elimination, one day, of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” The final images reprise the earlier mushroom clouds rising from nuclear blasts, but this time the images are cleverly altered: the film apparently is run in reverse, so the blasts shrink from sky-filling monstrosities to smaller and smaller puffs of smoke that ultimately disappear into the earth like a genie sucked back into a lamp. Before the credits roll, brief lines of white text on black background call nuclear weapons “the most dangerous machines ever invented. They have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill you…. The widespread lack of knowledge about them, the lack of public debate about them, makes the danger even worse. Our silence is a form of consent.”
“Our goal is not to persuade people of any one point of view or offer a six-point plan for nuclear disarmament,” Schlosser told the San Francisco audience during a Q&A after the bomb. “Mainly we want to get people talking about the issue.”
This, the bomb seems certain to do, especially among those who experience it live. A film version is available on iTunes and Netflix and can be downloaded for showing in schools. A live version with sound track performed by electronic-music trio the Acid, is heading to London, Los Angeles, and Australia. There is hope that a traveling installation of the bomb will temporarily take up residence in museums and performance settings around the world.
Since the bomb’s clear intent is to encourage popular action against nuclear weapons, it’s odd and unfortunate that it contains no references to the millions of people who filled the streets of London, New York, Berlin, and other world capitals in the 1980s demanding an end to the arms race. Though often ignored in mainstream accounts of the ending of the Cold War, these protests were instrumental in making US and Soviet officials feel pressure to slash nuclear arsenals. “We were afraid of losing those governments [in Western Europe],” former White House communications director David Gergen told me in an interview for On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, explaining why Reagan had to at least talk like he wanted peace. “We thought [British prime minister Margaret] Thatcher could fall over an issue like that.”
Audience members leaving the bomb are going to wonder what they can do about today’s manifest nuclear dangers. The Nobel Prize suggests one place to begin: Get involved with one of the hundreds of NGOs that are collaborating in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. “Over the last 20 years, a mass movement has arisen to sound the alarm about climate change, the other existential threat now facing humanity,” said Schlosser. “The climate movement has been imperfect, but it’s had a huge impact on mass awareness and public policy. We need to build that same kind of movement against nuclear weapons.”