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.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2002
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