“Where there is no vision, the people perish.“
– Proverbs 29:18
Attending the local premier of the chilling new documentary about the danger of nuclear weapons, “Countdown to Zero,” I found myself, a peace activist for decades, overcome with frustration, when I should have been celebrating an effective restatement of the issues. Most of the audience in the half-filled theater were retirees like me, people in their sixties or seventies. Where were the young whose futures are far more at stake than mine?
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How stale and obvious the dilemmas in the film seemed! Men dead half a century – Einstein, Oppenheimer, John F. Kennedy – saw immediately that these weapons had changed the environment of our planet forever. Even that old fossil Ronald Reagan knew the score, and along with Gorbachev (interviewed in the film) called for zero nuclear weapons in their summit at Reykjavik way back in the 1980s. But few paid heed, and here we are in 2010, psychically numbed by the same anxiety about being annihilated, this time by a terrorist suitcase weapon, that we endured during the long years of the Cold War.
It is its searching look at nuclear terrorism that makes the film contemporary and frighteningly compelling. When we hear how easy it is to obtain and sell and smuggle nuclear materials, and how much Al Qaeda wants to get its hands on some, it is hardly surprising to read in the Washington Post of the existence of over two thousand secret agencies in the US government working to gather intelligence on terrorist groups. A shadowy, undetectable threat that comes from anywhere on earth can only engender a kind of infinite security paranoia. Osama bin Laden is on record as having said that it will require the death of millions of Americans to atone for the Muslim deaths that Americans, according to him, have on their conscience. God forbid, should Al Qaeda succeed in smuggling a bomb into an American city, one might ask how Mr. bin Laden would distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Policymakers in Washington often try to extrapolate a lesson from the Cold War past – that nuclear weapons are useful and necessary because they deter – into an endless future of continued security. But they can only do this by ignoring the virtual certainty that, unless we change direction, non-state actors like Al-Qaeda will come to possess nuclear weapons, rendering obsolete the whole notion of deterrence. This wishful ignorance has been strongly countered by such eminent establishment figures as former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Schultz, as well as former Senator Nunn and Secretary of Defense Perry, all four of whom are now advocating for the zero option as fervently as any peace marcher of the 1960s.
At the same time that we bend our creativity and resources toward securing all sources of enriched uranium, we must also understand that these weapons are only a symptom of a planet-wide way of thinking based in fear and enemy stereotyping. Our inability to come to grips with the game-changing reality of these weapons has created not only psychic numbing, but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” As a child of the nuclear age (I was born in 1941 and had the privilege of brief encounters with both Einstein and Oppenheimer), I remain astonished at our passive acceptance of the notion that humans can achieve security, or even an Osama-like equity of revenge, by possessing weapons that can annihilate millions, at the same time wreaking nuclear climate change and fatal radiation upon “victors” as well.
What is the source of this odd paralysis, where even a mind as sharp as the president’s must qualify itself and say that abolition probably won’t be achieved in his lifetime? As the greatest ethicist of nuclear issues, Jonathan Schell, has written, abolition is a relatively easy challenge, compared to, say, the level of cooperation required to cope with global climate change.
Perhaps we fail to act because all our major institutions are steeped in an “intelligence” failure that operates for both of these supremely urgent issues and many others – an ethical disconnect. It is there in the bankers and corporations and insurance companies that make money on the misfortunes of others. It is there in the hypocritical rhetoric of our representatives in Congress who call for reining in deficits at the same time they want to extend tax breaks for the wealthy and give the Defense Department everything it asks. It is there in the remarkable refusal of almost every Republican senator to support the new Start nuclear arms treaty with Russia when most of our military leadership favors it. It is there in the talk-show personalities who pretend that a monologue in the form of a continuous sneer constitutes authentic dialogue with listeners. It is inescapable in the vast wasteland of television, where even the best of the best, like “Mad Men” or “The Sopranos,” are shrewd dramatizations of the roots of contemporary alienation. It is there in the contradiction between patriotic militarism and the core teaching of nonviolence conveniently ignored by mainstream churches. It is there in the obstinacy of those who resist a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, reinforcing the grotesque assumption that all Muslims are adversaries. And it is there in the misguided use of our young people as cannon fodder for futile nation-building in faraway deserts and mountains.
But this lack of intelligence and vision can also be seen as marking the “between time” as an old paradigm dies and a new one is born. The old paradigm can be summed up in one phrase: “us and them.” For “us” to win, the other, the “them,” must lose. In a world where anyone who wants a nuclear weapon enough can get one, “intelligence” in the old paradigm – good “us” trying to stay a step ahead of evil “them” – can be redefined in the new paradigm: the intelligence of the Israeli soldiers who refuse to be enemies with the Palestinians and are working to build relationships across contentious borders. The prophetic intelligence of Gandhi, who, confronted by a Hindu man asking how he could atone for having taken part in the mob killing of a Muslim family, replied that the man should find a Muslim child and raise it as a Muslim.
The intelligence of de Klerk and Mandela and Bishop Tutu as they negotiated the end of apartheid without bloodshed. The intelligence of the Palestinian gynecologist who lost three daughters in one horrible moment to an Israeli artillery explosion, yet has dedicated his life to reconciliation. The intelligence of Greg Mortenson, who feels safer building schools for girls in Afghanistan than he does when he returns to his family in Montana, where he is vilified for helping the Muslim “enemy.” The intelligence of our greatest ethical mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who at the end of his life attacked the empty premises of an earlier futile US-led war, asking instead that we use our immense resources to address the needs of the poor in our own unfinished nation. In this new intelligence paradigm, the paradigm of courage, love, and forgiveness, lies the ultimate answer to the nuclear dilemmas so vividly set forth in “Countdown to Zero.”