My political consciousness probably first coalesced around the issue of nuclear (not nukular) weapons. My father is a physicist and worked at Los Alamos when I was in elementary school in the 70s. If the name sounds familiar, its the town in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed. In fact, the whole town was created in the 1940s for the sole purpose of working on The Bomb. The Lab, as its called, is still its main industry.
My first impression of nuclear weapons was that they were pretty cool. What can I say? I was a little boy, and things that blow up are cool. I'd collect pictures of bomb tests from the 50s. And there was something aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, about them. Let's call that my Little Doctor Strangelove phase. As I grew older and found out more about them, and what they did, I grew a bit less enamored of them. And at a certain point I became downright horrified (which, by the way, is the correct emotion, it just took me awhile to come around to it). I can't remember what it was exactly that turned me around. I know I read Hiroshima by John Hershey when I was fairly young, maybe that was it. I even had night terrors a few times. I can vividly remember more than a couple nights, not being able to get to sleep because I was convinced that we were about to be obliterated. I sat in the darkness in my family's living room waiting for the flash, my breathing quickened, my heart palpitating. Terror.
Sounds pretty irrational, right? And in a way, yes. The fear that nuclear missiles were
on their way that very night, was irrational. I had no reason to think that that was so. But, I would argue that the fear that missiles could
have been on their way was not only rational, but that it represented what the alcoholics call "a moment of clarity". The cold fact is that for the past 50 years or more we have lived in a world where massive numbers of unimaginably destructive weapons, and an almost robotic system for delivering them at a moment's notice, have been poised on a hair-trigger. Its really rather remarkable that we've survived. So, what that little boy was experiencing in his darkened living room, in the middle of the night, in New Mexico back in the late 70s, was the sudden realization that his life was in danger. In biology they call this the Fight or Flight reaction. But you can't fight these weapons, at least not in any way that a sudden burst of adrenaline will help. And there is no place on earth that one can go to be safe from them, so there's no running. They thus present humans with a situation that they're biologically (or psychologically) very unsuited to deal with. So we don't deal with it. Not most of us. Even those that are somewhat cognizant of the facts, don't accord it nearly the attention that we should on a daily basis, considering what the stakes are. Its like deciding what socks you're going to wear, or what you're going to cook for dinner, while you're strapped into a guillotine. We're all rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and the iceberg has been right in front of us the whole time, getting closer, and closer.
My consciousness of these facts of life grew slowly through high school, though I never really did anything about it. My thoughts on the subject finally matured when I read Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of Earth" as a sophomore at UMass-Amherst. It hit me like a body blow, and I walked around in a fog of semi-depression for about a week afterward. That said, I highly recommend it and I think it should be required reading for all inhabitants of our planet.
I was at my most active, politically, while I was at UMass in the late 80s. Since the period of activity was relatively short, maybe I was more hyper-active than really active. Anyway, I was involved in campus protests against DoD-funded research at the University. I was arrested several times. I canvassed for awhile with the Nuclear Freeze. That was a real exercise in butting my head against a wall. We canvassed in Massachusetts and Connecticut, two fairly Democratic states, and we got our maps from Greenpeace. And in many neighborhoods where they did extremely well, we were met with open hostility. I guess saving the whales is one thing, but undermining America's defenses is another. There were maybe a small handful of people that I think I really reached. But, mostly I was lucky to be met with just ambivalence. Plenty of doors were slammed in my face. I remember one guy told me, "I'm a right-winger. We'll be seeing you, pal." Slam. I found the whole experience to be depressing.
Not long after that I sort of spun out, and went on ... I don't know, kind of an unreality trip. Chemicals were involved. Lots of them. Grateful Dead shows, hitch-hiking around the country, etc. "Not dealing", in other words. I eventually settled down, re-entered society. Got a job. Got a better job. Went back to school. Got a family. Found a good spot for my deckchair, one where the iceberg wasn't quite blocking the sun. And joined the ranks of sleepwalking people, oblivious to the fact that we are poised on the edge of a cliff, or knowing but trying not to think about it. I no longer sit in a darkened living room at night with heart palpitations. But I believe my body's fight or flight response has been on a low simmer the whole time. And has manifested as various neuroses, nervous habits, nail-biting, whatever.
There really is no response that is wholly adequate for the gravity of the situation. There is no danger that any animal has knowingly faced that is as great and as immediate as that is posed by nuclear weapons on high-alert (they've always been on high-alert, and still are). Its no wonder that we have failed so miserably in dealing with this danger. It really is unthinkable. Some people, like Mr. Schell, have made valiant attempts to get us to confront it. But so far the number of people that have been motivated to change this situation has yet to reach anywhere near critical mass (pardon the metaphor). I found it very difficult to get people to appreciate the situation back in the 80s when it was still at least generally understood that a situation existed. I imagine that if I tried canvassing on this issue today I'd be met not with venom, but with quizzical stares. Isn't the Cold War over? What's this wacky liberal talking about?
And yet, despite what the general public may believe, the nuclear arms race has not only not gone away, it is experiencing a revival. And I believe we are in greater danger of experiencing a nuclear holocaust today than at any time in the past 40 years. There have been so many alarming things that have occurred in the past 4 years that its hard to keep track of them all, but one thing that the Bush administration did early on that caught my attention like fingernails on a chalk board, is its renewed commitment (eagerness even) to ready America's nuclear weapons for use in war. I'll discuss this in another post.
And so, here I am now, still strapped into that guillotine with the rest of you, the blade still suspended over our collective necks. And I'm paying my bills, like most of the rest of you, and commuting to and from work, and debating whether I should mow my lawn today or tomorrow.