Friday, January 26, 2018

Racing Against the Doomsday Clock

[This reflection was given today at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace , the interfaith peace group to which I have belong for over ten years. We are partnering with FCNL to advocate stopping the threat of war with North Korea.]

In the fall of 1983, I left a teaching position at Carleton College to return to Princeton, my hometown, to care for my mother, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I moved into my mother’s house where my sister also lived. One chilly October night, at 2:00 am, I heard a terrifying sound---the sound of a siren wailing. I leaped out of bed, my heart racing, terrified. I imagined that this was an air raid siren—the kind I had learned to fear growing up in the 1950s. I went to my bedroom window and saw neighbors peering out of their windows and felt a tremendous sense of grief. Was this it? Was this how the world would end? The sadness I felt is indescribable. I had come home to take care of my mother who was dying, and now the entire world was on the brink of destruction. I was utterly overwhelmed with emotion. My sister screamed, “Oh my God,” and rushed downstairs in panic. She ran to her old clunker car, lifted the hood, and disengaged the horn. It was a false alarm. We were safe. Or were we?
That same year, 1983, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock to 4 minutes to midnight, 3 minutes closer than it was in 1980, largely because Ronald Reagan was sable rattling and threatening the Soviet Union. Just this week, scientists moved the Doomsday Clock is 2 minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953, because of tensions between North Korea and the US. The terrifying fact is that we have mentally unstable leaders in both countries who are threatening to use nuclear weapons. The fate of the world now rests in the hands of these two power-crazed men.
This is a threat  we cannot afford to ignore. There was recently false alarm in Hawaii in which residents were told that there were incoming missiles, presumably from North Korea. The entire island experienced for 38 minutes the kind of existential terror that I felt in 1983, and were no doubt relieved when it proved a false alarm and they were safe. Or were they?
If a technical glitch like this can lead to the conclusion that there are incoming missiles, how can we be safe? We know that in 1983, the same year that my sister’s car horn went off, there was a false alarm in the Soviet Union that almost led to WWIII.  On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the officer on duty at a bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites. Petrov's responsibilities included notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, he was supposed to launch an immediate and compulsory nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Shortly after midnight, the bunker's computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system's reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm. His good judgment saved the world. Similar incidents have occurred before and since. Just last month, at the Maritime Museum in San Diego, Jill and I learned of a nuclear sub that came under attack by American vessels during the Cuban missile crisis. The sub commander, a man named Achipov, decided not to retaliate with a nuclear-tipped torpedo. He is also credited with saving the world. If we have come this close to nuclear war, and were saved only by the good judgment of a few sensible people, then the world truly hangs by a thread. That’s why nuclear scientists believe that we are only minutes away from nuclear holocaust, even during the best of times and with the best of leaders.
Most Americans live in a state of denial when it comes to nuclear war. We have never experienced the devastating effects of war, as have the Russians and the North Koreans. We are addicted to Hollywood violence that numbs us to the real horrors of modern warfare.
That’s why organizations like ICUJP and FCNL are so important. We are not afraid to look in the terrifying abyss and say, “We are facing nuclear midnight” and we intend to do something about it. That’s why we held a Justice Luncheon this summer in which a physician shared with us the terrifying sound of 5,000 pellets, each representing a nuclear weapon with many times the destructive power greater than Hiroshima, falling into a steel bucket. This kind of firepower can cause a nuclear winter and end life as we know it.
When I learned that FCNL had chosen as its priority stopping war with North Korea, I was thrilled. I know that FCNL has an excellent reputation and a track record. FCNL was one of the organizations that lobbied on behalf of the Iran nuclear agreement.
I also know the power that we possess as people of faith and conscience. During the 1980s people power played a key role in ending the Cold War through the work of citizen diplomats going to the Soviet Union and the nuclear freeze movement that put pressure on politicians here in the US. As many of you know, I was an editor of a joint Soviet/Americans book project sponsored by the Quakers that was published in the Soviet Union and the United States. Thanks to efforts like these, Reagan went to Moscow for an historic meeting with Gorbachev. This breakthrough was followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and nuclear treaties that reduced the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia by nearly 80%.
With 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world (down from 70,000 in 1980), we still have reason to fear, but we also have grounds for hope. As a person of faith, I believe in a God who blesses peace makers and loves justice. As a Quaker, I seek to live in the power that takes away the occasion of war, to use the words of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends. I know from experience that the power of goodness and of love should never be underestimated. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, the suffragist movement, and many other movements testify to the power of nonviolent social change. Together we can do more than we can imagine.
Jesus made a remarkable statement to his ragtag band of followers, ”Greater things than I have done, you will do.” This was a starting statement coming from someone that his disciplines believe believed was the Son of God. But Jesus was right. He started a movement which over the course of centuries, did much more good than any one person could have done alone. Alone we can do little more than light a candle in the dark, but together we can perform miracles, such as ending legalized slavery and the Cold War.

I’d like to end with the words of nuclear scientists and of a President who knew first-hand the cost of war and the evils of the military industrial complex.  Dwight D. Eisenhower said:  “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” The nuclear scientists agree: "The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future is lamentable, but that failure can be reversed. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so…They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world."

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