The lawn is mowed. This small detail cracks my heart into pieces. A silent scream wails in the hollow space of my ribs.
I am standing at the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Green grass slopes down to a pond. A grandfather helps a child circle the concrete walkways on a plastic scooter. Ducks paddle around a metal statue of cranes. The rusted iron of the metal cranes look charred and melting. The lumps and bubbles remind me of the hanging flesh of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. Like everything in the mundane city park, the cranes, upon close inspection, cannot hide the fact that this very spot was where the first nuclear bomb was built.
In my mind, an angry red mushroom cloud roils thousands of feet into the sky.
Nowhere is Hannah Arendt’s phrase the banality of evil more potent than at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The prosperous county -one of the nation’s richest – sits amongst the piñon pines and junipers in the high-altitude desert of northern New Mexico. It exists almost exclusively for the purpose of researching and developing nuclear weapons.
My shoes are standing on the place where the first atomic bombs were built. The World War II sheds and buildings are gone, replaced by this city park, but the canyons still hide radioactivity . . . and a mile away, scientists are developing bombs that make Fat Man and Little Boy look like cheap firecrackers.
Awakening before dawn, my partner and I have come on a pilgrimage to Los Alamos to speak truth to power at a meeting of our elected officials from local county, city, and tribal governments. Not one of these mayors, councilors, or commissioners dares to use their position on the coalition to speak out against nuclear weapons. The livelihood of the impoverished northern New Mexicans depends on the laboratory. It is the second largest employer in the state.
Lives are at stake, we are told again and again. We need the jobs.
Lives are at stake. The phrase echoes in my mind as I watch the fountain in the center of Ashley Pond. Seven billion lives are hanging “three minutes to midnight” as the United States keeps nuclear weapons ready to deploy. Three hundred and twenty million Americans are kept in danger by the US and Russian tensions and our governments’ inability to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. One and a half million New Mexicans are thrust in the shadow of Los Alamos . . . a laboratory that sits on top of a fault line, nearly burned to the ground in a catastrophic forest fire a few years ago, and still stores plutonium on site. Countless peoples of the Marshall Islands and North American tribes have been poisoned by radiation. 150,000 Japanese lost their lives in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago.
At the same time that a secret team of scientists was constructing the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, 11 million people were being shoved into gas chambers. In Nazi Germany and occupied territories, local officials let train loads of men, women, and children pass through their depots because the officials’ lives – and livelihoods – were at stake. German bureaucrats filed paperwork just like New Mexican bureaucrats – because their livelihoods were at stake. Construction crews built Auschwitz and the other death camps, because they needed the jobs. Scientists designed the gas chambers, incinerators, and toxic chemicals. Townspeople coughed on acrid black smoke and went on with their daily lives.
The banality of evil lies in this mowed lawn that slopes down to the complacent Ashley Pond. I sit for a moment by the water, watching the ducks and the fountain, thinking of Japanese civilians with eyeballs hanging out of their charred faces as they stumbled through the ruins of Hiroshima. I think of the post-bombing suicides when traumatized Japanese, unable to cope with the horrors, threw themselves under trains, leaving sisters to collect dismembered limbs.
“The Atomic Bomb has resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.”
– Mahatma Gandhi, 1945
Gandhi’s words make me weep. I feel shame for my country. I am a member of a people who would not only drop one, but two horrific bombs on Japan, and currently has enough weapons to destroy the whole world. I am a citizen of the nation that contaminated whole chains of islands with nuclear tests. I am part of a country that devotes trillions of dollars to these monstrosities while just down the hill the local children are going hungry.
On the other hand, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There will be hundreds of vigils and actions all around the world, and I invite you to be part of the hundreds who will pilgrimage to Los Alamos this summer to speak out against the horror of nuclear weapons during the August 6th & 9th Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day Vigils. I am one of the hundreds who will choose to embody Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about nuclear weapons, “It is nonviolence or nonexistence,” by taking part in the Campaign Nonviolence National Conference, studying active nonviolence with Rev. James Lawson, Erica Chenoweth, Kathy Kelly, Medea Benjamin, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Ken Butigan, John Dear, and more. I am one of the thousands who live in the shadow of Los Alamos who choose to stand up to nuclear weapons.
And today, I am one person standing at the epicenter of our nation’s banality of evil, listening to a child laughing.