A Reign of Terror

AMID WORRIES about a new Cold War, of standoffs with old enemies and confrontations with new ones, Harvard professor Elaine Scarry’s latest book is a chilling reminder of the doom our presidentially controlled nuclear arsenal can unleash upon the world. Early on, she reminds us that President Nixon told reporters, “I can get on the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”

This boast illustrates Scarry’s thesis: We live in a thermonuclear monarchy, where one person—the U.S. president—can destroy the world. Nuclear doom is an accident waiting to happen, and she reviews a number of barely publicized near misses.

But she sees a solution at hand—the U.S. Constitution, specifically both Article I, Section 8, which says that Congress alone can declare war, and the Second Amendment. The text of the latter reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (Emphasis added.) Scarry argues that the amendment mandates a second level of citizen consent to war, a further brake to executive power, even after Congress has given its approval—that the writers of the Constitution intended that before the U.S. engaged in any war the people would have to consent to join a militia, a form of collective participation in the decision for war. According to Scarry, our out-of-ratio nuclear weapons stockpile, ready to launch at the command of a single person, has negated the Constitution-mandated chain of accountability and decision-making and is therefore illegal.

Scarry, a scholar of social theory, argues that the social contract on which the Constitution stands also outlaws nuclear weapons. Departing from some interpretations, she maintains that the social contract as developed through the centuries is actually a covenant for peace, giving us a blueprint on how to live without war.

Except for the faithful Plowshares anti-nuclear activists, most of “we the people” no longer think about nuclear war. Perhaps it’s because we simply can’t think of it, can’t get our heads around the idea that one person can input the codes that will kill every one of us, friend or foe. Scarry forces us to face the realities. For example, she writes that each U.S. Navy Ohio-class nuclear submarine carries enough warheads to destroy the people on an entire continent. We have 14 of them and seven continents. Do the math.

Every foreign affairs correspondent and every federal elected official should read this book. Lest informed readers be put off by its size and depth of reasoning, an introduction illustrates the problem with a graphic parable, and each part begins with a helpful prelude and summary.

Scarry also provides fascinating detail in developing each of her arguments. In the final section, “Consent and Emergency Deliberation,” we learn that Switzerland provides nuclear shelter for 81 percent of its population. The U.S. provides it only for the executive office, which will dive deep into a Blue Ridge mountain in the event of a nuclear strike. But while regular exercises rehearse the steps necessary to alert the president to launch a strike, the president’s evacuation travel is rarely practiced, probably because such a maneuver would attract attention. And attention to the fact of thermonuclear monarchy is exactly what the president and the Pentagon don’t want. We might start to ask why the government, instead of building shelters for its people, posts billboards: “Does your family have a plan? Be prepared for an emergency!”

Scarry concludes that our Constitution is the adequate but woefully unused answer to eliminating nuclear weapons. One caveat about the book: Scarry doesn’t tell us how to get from the doom to the democracy. Given our present muddled Congress—relying as it does on constant, costly electioneering and stunted with corporate financial control—how can we get our representatives to listen? Scarry writes, “Thermonuclear monarchy is more grave, more dark, more dangerous than any tyranny that has ever operated on earth.” Eliminating the weapons completely is the only solution. If the Constitution is an answer, how can we get Congress to use it? 

Rosalie G. Riegle is professor emerita in English from Saginaw Valley State University and on the national committee of the War Resisters League. Her latest book is Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace (Wipf and Stock).

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