This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter
Most people know there is a risk of a nuclear weapons accident. Most people know there is a risk that a terrorist or a hacker will gain control of a nuclear weapon. But not enough people recognize the largest source of risk: the nuclear nations themselves.
These states have girdled the earth with a gigantic nuclear architecture. All humanity is held hostage inside this lethal scaffolding. An accident or a terrorist may one day eliminate an entire city. But with their much vaster resources, the nuclear nations may destroy not just a single city, but almost all living creatures on earth. It is the nuclear nations that have created and dispersed nuclear weapons — thereby making them available for accidental detonation or appropriation by non-state actors.
This coming April and May the nations of the world will meet in New York for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Non-nuclear states will be interested in examining the progress that has been made on one article in particular. Article 6 of the NPT — which the United States ratified in 1969 — requires that the nuclear states disarm: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations… on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
43 years later, the nuclear states show no sign of disarming; they are instead modernizing their arsenals.
The United States, which has the most lethal nuclear arsenal, is designing a next-generation Ohio-class submarine, a next-generation ICBM, and a next-generation nuclear bomber. The projected cost is $1 trillion, or $10,000 for every household in America. We already have the power to massacre all the inhabitants of earth; the collective wealth of the country will now be spent on perpetuating that shameful power. Meanwhile our bridges collapse, roads deteriorate, schools decay.
The other nuclear states are also upgrading their weapons. With the exception of Russia, the other nuclear states have small arsenals. Yet even these are vast in their death-dealing power. Recent research on nuclear winter, published in journals such as Physics Today, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and Geophysical Research, shows that even if a mere 0.015% of the explosive power of the world’s arsenal is used, 44 million people will die on the first day and one billion in the first month.
Once the United States begins to disarm, other nuclear states will follow. But the United States will begin to disarm only when our population insists that this disarming take place. The nuclear era has taught us to believe we have no say in the matter. That is untrue. We do have a say. This unspeakable moral harm has continued to flourish because we – the citizenry — have been silent.
What is our alternative to speaking out?
Shall we wait until a foreign city or one of our own cities has been destroyed? Will we only then cry out?
Will we rush in to help bury bodies and distribute water to the tens of thousands burned? Will the water be radiated? Will those who assist be contaminated?
Nuclear weapons have eliminated the right of self-defense; they have also nearly erased the possibility of mutual aid.
Have you checked the procedures for dealing with nuclear disaster in your own city? No need. There are no procedures in place.
Only injuries that have not yet happened can be stopped. Our chance to stop them is now.
Shall we wait until the weapons are made? The weapons are already made.
Shall we wait until they are mated to their delivery systems? They are already mated to their delivery systems.
Shall we wait until targets have been selected? Thousands of targets have already been selected and specific weapons assigned to each.
Shall we wait until the missiles are on alert? They are already on alert.
Only one step remains.
Our decision to speak or remain silent will determine what comes next. Our own instruction to world leaders: “Disarm. Now.” — Or instead their instruction: “Fire.”
Elaine Scarry is the author of Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing between Democracy and Doom and a member of MAPA’s nuclear abolition working group.