Crossing the Nuclear Threshold

Sept. 11 has changed many things, but few of us expected it to bring back nuclear weapons. The Pentagon's recently leaked "Nuclear Posture Review" is breathtaking in its assumptions and prescriptions.

Reversing more than two decades when nuclear weapons were seen as a last resort, to be used only if the nation's existence were threatened in a doomsday confrontation with another superpower, the new approach changes everything. It clearly plans the "first use" of nuclear weapons, targets them against non-nuclear states, integrates "nuclear capacity" into conventional military strategies and foreign policy objectives, and virtually erases any former restraints against their use by now justifying nuclear war against contingencies as vague and unspecified as "surprising military developments." How's that for protecting the world against weapons of mass destruction?

We are about to cross a momentous threshold in the "war against terrorism"— the nuclear threshold—and it is a firewall that we must not breach. Just exactly how are nuclear weapons supposed to help us wipe out terrorism?

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) focuses on seven nations, including the "axis of evil" regimes named by President Bush, as potential targets of a U.S. nuclear attack. But will the new "adaptive" nuclear capabilities the Defense Department now envisions kill only Saddam Hussein and his top Baath Party leaders, leaving the already suffering people of Iraq unscathed? Will a direct nuclear hit on North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il, carefully avoid incinerating the starving North Korean people or irradiating South Korea? Maybe these new nuclear weapons can vaporize only the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran who hate America and avoid the growing number of people, and even leaders there, who hunger for reform.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS are different. The difference is not only military, but also moral. Nuclear weapons cannot be used with any moral conscience—even in retaliation for an attack on America by a terrorist's chemical or biological weapon (a scenario the NPR describes as justification for U.S. nuclear response). What would you target?

To posit nuclear weapons as a response to a terrorist attack is to create both a political disaster and a fundamental moral contradiction. You can't credibly rid the world of weapons of mass destruction while, at the same time, preparing to use them. Nuclear weapons are themselves weapons of terror. Their devastation destroys all distinctions between military and civilian casualties, and that is the essence of terrorism—an attack upon innocent lives. By suggesting the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, the United States would actually legitimate them and encourage others to use them—including against us.

Nuclear weapons are by definition so indiscriminate and awesome in their destruction that they are in a category by themselves. That has been the position of the churches for many years. At this critical moment of decision, the president should be paying close attention to what the churches have said about the use of nuclear weapons. The president should read the many denominational statements on nuclear weapons, especially the U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letter, which states: "We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified." He should revisit the history of the 1980s to see that the churches were the animating core of the movement to halt and reverse the Cold War's nuclear arms race.

By adopting the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, the president may be inviting another faith-based initiative. But this one could be a determined moral resistance from the religious community to a very wrong turn in his war on terrorism. It's time for George W. Bush to read some theology and put his Pentagon's nuclear war-fighting proposals back in the file cabinet. We can't fight terrorism by threatening even more destructive terror. The Pentagon's new doctrine will simply make nuclear war more plausible. And to resist that is a religious obligation.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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