Sunday, August 07, 2005

Of Bombs, Frogs, and Heroes

Yesterday, sixty years after the bombing of , hundreds turned out for a memorial in front of City Hall and floated paper lanterns on a pool. Polls show that most citizens in every democratic country want nuclear weapons abolished, yet over 30,000 of them still exist — vastly bigger ones than those that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a , if most citizens insist, they can get their way. But citizens aren’t insisting. Why not?

As usual, the explanation is both emotional and cognitive. People are passive and fatalistic, not agitated, and they aren’t sure whether their opinions are completely rational. “Maybe I’m wrong,” they admit. “If our president wants these , he probably has good reasons that I’m not aware of. Besides, I’m just an ordinary person. What could I do about it anyhow? I try to keep calm and peaceful in my mind, since I can’t make real peace on earth.”

That’s the song of a boiling . If you throw a frog into a pot of simmering water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog into a pan of cool water and start heating it, it will stay there and boil to death. Frogs need a shock to become aware of their peril. Same with people. We’ve been in this pot since 1945, and nothing has happened to make us jump out. It may take the hostile use of a bomb to set off our mental alarm.

That could happen at any time. We’re damn lucky. Russian and American nuclear bombs are kept ready to be launched within about 15 minutes after any warning that missiles are en route from an unfriendly source. That launch-on-warning status means that any mistaken warning may set off a nuclear war. Indeed, false alarms occur daily, and in some cases have not been discovered to be false until after retaliatory bombs should have been launched. For example, in 1983, during a period of high tension between East and West, Colonel Vladimir was in charge of a Soviet bunker when the klaxon went off, indicating the start of World War III. The satellite Cosmos, monitoring the skies above US fields, had detected five launches — one after the other. If he had obeyed orders, we would have perished. But Petrov refused to believe that anyone would launch a war with just five missiles, so he disobeyed orders, which is why you and I are still alive today. There are other similar near-launches from false alarms, including one caused by a moon rising over the horizon and another caused by a flock of geese mistaken for a missile. Numerous military experts believe that our luck cannot continue indefinitely. For example, Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, now urges the United States and Russia (who own 96 percent of the world’s nuclear bombs) to dismantle them all.

There was a time when the nuclear states seemed willing to do just that. In Geneva in 1965, negotiations began to draft a nuclear nonproliferation treaty (). Such a was completed by July 1968 and in 1970 it entered into force. The United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were among the 43 original parties. The NPT represents a “deal” between the nuclear and the non-nuclear states, with the former pledging to move toward nuclear disarmament and the non-nuclear states promising not to acquire nuclear weapons, on condition that the peaceful benefits of nuclear technologies be made available to them.

Since then, the original five nuclear states have reneged on their promise, while warning all the other countries not to acquire nuclear weapons. This spring, the regular five-year review conference of the NPT collapsed in utter failure. Indeed, President George W. plans to build new nuclear weapons, and the Russians are testing a new intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile, the Topol-M, though their early warning system is aging and becoming less reliable.

These changes are a signal: It’s time to jump out of the boiling water. It’s time for citizens to compel their governments to end the growing peril. Why isn’t this happening? The explanation is emotional. Whereas people often expect the public to over-react in panic and stampede if they hear of a danger, the truth is just the opposite. almost never happens. False complacency, however, is completely normal. If, say, a dam breaks and a wall of water is rushing to your town, the police may drive up and down the streets warning people to flee immediately, but many people will simply ignore the message. However dangerous it may be, is psychologically normal. Often people look out the window and decide that it must be a false alarm because the neighbor is still raking his lawn. We follow each other.

It may take a hero to set examples for others to follow. A hero is someone who doesn’t follow the crowd but who uses good judgment on his own, and actively works to save the world. Heroes don’t even have to be real to be persuasive. We may be moved by a remarkable character in a and — especially if we discuss the plot with friends — decide to emulate him. When we’re short of real heroes, let’s create some inspiring fictional ones.


Anonymous rex said...

I hope that "0 comments" doesn't mean that all your readers are 'passive-ists'! But I hope you keep writing (so well) "Of Bombs, Frogs, and Heroes" anyway. I myself have a website ( that promotes these ideas & invites comments but has received zero comments so far. Unfortunately, we can't make people respond, but we can keep inviting responses, both by our words & by our heroic deeds.
Most importantly, we must call each other to do our living on the highest moral ground we can imagine!

11:20 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

My sentiments exactly, Rex. And I realize now that the settings were wrong for a few days, so people had trouble posting comments -- or even found it impossible. That's a heck of a way to launch a blog!

7:37 PM  
Blogger tednichols said...

I believe unilateral disarmament is a pipe dream and we are going to have to live with nuclear weapons. Although I wish this wasn't so, not all forms of nuclear proliferation are equally bad. Here is Ted Galen Carpenter's take on all this:

Ted Galen Carpenter, the Cato Institute's vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of six books and the editor of 10 books on international affairs.

The conventional wisdom is that all instances of nuclear weapons proliferation threaten the stability of the international system and the security interests of the United States. Indeed, that is the underlying logic of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, adopted by the bulk of the international community in the late 1960s, which is the centerpiece of the existing nonproliferation system. Members of the arms control community have over the decades spent an enormous amount of time and energy agonizing over the possibility that stable, democratic status quo powers such as Germany, Japan, Sweden and South Korea might decide to abandon the treaty and develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, they have devoted at least as much attention to that problem as they have to the prospect that unstable or aggressive states might build nuclear arsenals. The recent flap over the small scale (and probably unauthorized) nuclear experiments in South Korea is merely the latest example of such misplaced priorities.

The hostility toward all forms of proliferation is not confined to dovish arms control types but extends across the political spectrum. As the North Korean nuclear crisis evolved in 2002 and 2003, some of the most hawkish members of the U.S. foreign policy community became terrified at the prospect that America's democratic allies in East Asia might build their own nuclear deterrents to offset Pyongyang's moves. Neoconservative luminaries Robert Kagan and William Kristol regarded such proliferation with horror: "The possibility that Japan, and perhaps even Taiwan, might respond to North Korea's actions by producing their own nuclear weapons, thus spurring an East Asian nuclear arms race . . . is something that should send chills up the spine of any sensible American strategist."

That attitude misconstrues the problem. A threat to the peace may exist if an aggressive and erratic regime gets nukes and then is able to intimidate or blackmail its non-nuclear neighbors. Nuclear arsenals in the hands of stable, democratic, status quo powers do not threaten the peace of the region. Kagan and Kristol -- and other Americans who share their hostility toward such countries having nuclear weapons -- implicitly accept a moral equivalence between a potential aggressor and its potential victims.

America's current nonproliferation policy is the international equivalent of domestic gun control laws, and exhibits the same faulty logic. Gun control laws have had little effect on preventing criminal elements from acquiring weapons. Instead, they disarm honest citizens and make them more vulnerable to armed predators. The nonproliferation system is having a similar perverse effect. Such unsavory states as Iran and North Korea are well along on the path to becoming nuclear powers while their more peaceful neighbors are hamstrung by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty from countering those moves.

The focus of Washington's nonproliferation policy should substitute discrimination and selectivity for uniformity of treatment. U.S. policymakers must rid themselves of the notion that all forms of proliferation are equally bad. The United States should concentrate on making it difficult for aggressive or unstable regimes to acquire the technology and fissile material needed to develop nuclear weapons. Policymakers must adopt a realistic attitude about the limitations of even that more tightly focused nonproliferation policy. At best, U.S. actions will only delay, not prevent, such states from joining the nuclear weapons club.

But delay can provide important benefits. A delay of only a few years may significantly reduce the likelihood that an aggressive power with a new nuclear weapons capability will have a regional nuclear monopoly and be able to blackmail non-nuclear neighbors. In some cases, the knowledge that the achievement of a regional nuclear monopoly is impossible may discourage a would-be expansionist power from even making the effort. At the very least, it could cause such a power to configure its new arsenal purely for deterrence rather than for aggressive purposes.

Washington's nonproliferation efforts should focus on delaying rogue states in their quest for nuclear weapons, not beating up on peaceful states who might want to become nuclear powers for their own protection. The other key objective of a new U.S. proliferation policy should be to prevent unfriendly nuclear states from transferring their weapons or nuclear know-how to terrorist adversaries of the United States. Those objectives are daunting enough without continuing the vain and counterproductive effort to prevent all forms of proliferation.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Mr. Carpenter has a weird notion as to what US policies really are. He even seems to think Americans try to ban guns inside the country, whereas the place is wide open. Canada _does_ control guns and has vastly lower rates of violent crime.

I guess, in a strange way, I have to agree with him that not all countries are equally dangerous as owners of nuclear weapons. But the worst country is the United States itself! It's the only country that has used nukes in warfare -- twice -- and it has threatened to use them on numerous other occasions.

Moreover, the US promised, along with the other nuclear states, to proceed toward disarmament. It has broken that promise, while demanding that other countries refrain from acquiring similar weapons. I think the US, and all other countries, should abide by any treaties that they sign.

Certainly the world would be better off without nuclear weapons. That is what I want.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous rex said...

As long as we're living with nuclear weapons, let's keep 'dreaming' (but skip the 'pipe')! 'Democracy' & 'world peace' are also 'dreams', 'dreams' that I believe are essential for our common well-being. If we want a healthy future, we must do our best to imagine ('dream') what it would be like & how to make it manifest. But, please, let's test our ideas carefully, individually & collectively. Let's get input from as many sources as possible about how well our ideas actually work. If they seem to make all life better, let's call them ‘wisdom’. If they don’t, let’s keep on trying!
My dream is to work toward the elimination or strict control of all lethal weapons that can kill even unseen ‘enemies’, not even permitting the manufacture any weapons of mass destruction! Let’s allow very tightly controlled police forces to use lethal weapons to try to prevent any other killing, but making every effort to do so without killing those who threaten. We need every person’s ‘wisdom’ (before they are dead!). Let’s also try to practice the ‘holy trinity’ of life: faith (in our own capacity to learn), hope (so we never stop trying) & love (of all life).

5:09 PM  
Blogger tednichols said...

A little late responding to this but here it is: I am going way back to the days when Metta and I were in high school in San Bernardino. I want blog readers to understand history and judge accordingly. The Japs ( that's what we called them then) were killing Americans with finatical fervor in Iwo Jima, Guadacanal and other pacific islands as our Armed Forces battled back. Kamakazi pilots plunged into our naval ships and their soldiers fought a vicious battle bunker to bunker and tunnel to tunnel. Our losses were in the thousands. President Truman, one of our great presidents, decided to use the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unternative was a great loss of American lives in the attempt to invade Japan. As is true today we were dealing with finatics willing to die for their emporer at any cost. That is why Truman used the atomic bombs,

5:23 AM  

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