Nuclear Weapons

Hope but Verify: The Iran Nuclear Framework

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Agreement announcement on Iran nuclear talks April 2 in Laussane. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

For Christians, Easter is not just a day — it is a season, and, indeed, a way of life. This week is Easter: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and so on. Likewise, hope — the message of Easter — is not a feeling, but rather a decision — a choice we make day after day. Hope isn’t easy, but the decision to hope keeps the world going.

Now we have a choice to make: a decision whether to pursue a tough diplomatic process for peace to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The United States and Iran — along with the U.K., Germany, France, Russia, and China — now have the beginning framework of a deal that could accomplish just that. But we would have to give it a chance. Much has to be worked out by the June 30 deadline, and it won’t be easy.

Should we give this hope for peace a chance? I believe Christians should answer yes. Here’s why.

Americans of Faith Must Reconsider Stands on Nuclear Weapons

Gas masks of World War II. Image via RNS/shutterstock.com

Gas masks of World War II. Image via RNS/shutterstock.com

Setsuko Thurlow was 13 when “progress” came to Hiroshima in a white-hot flash. In the dark silence following the nuclear bomb blast, Thurlow recalls children crying, “Mama, help me. God, help me.”

Her sister lived for four days. Many of her 351 dying schoolmates “looked like skeletons with skin hanging from their bones.”

They perished in agony.

Today, Thurlow and other survivors travel the globe, sharing their stories with a new generation for which nuclear weapons are an afterthought — seemingly a hypothetical and abstract threat.

The end of the Cold War had a mixed effect on the nuclear equation. Through dogged diplomacy and effective institutions, disarmament continues, though at a slower pace in recent years. There are now 10,000 operational nuclear warheads in the world, down from a high of 64,000 in 1986.

But the specter of nuclear terrorism and regional conflicts between nuclear weapons states makes nuclear weapons even more dangerous in our international system. Deterrence theory, which governed strategic thinking during the Cold War, is a much less compelling framework today.

Thankfully, most states have forsworn these armaments. Nuclear weapons are not vital to any state’s legitimate security interest. No state or NGO has the capacity to respond to the unfathomable humanitarian crisis that would follow an accidental or intentional use of a nuclear weapon.

Thus a growing global consensus now acknowledges the extreme risk nuclear weapons pose.

Pope John XXIII stated unequivocally in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” “Nuclear weapons must be banned.”

Nuclear Weapons: Time for Abolition

IMAGINE IF YOU will a world in which the most destructive weapons were “conventional” explosives. These bombs, often with nicknames such as “Daisy Cutter” or “bunker buster” or even the “Mother of All Bombs,” have enormous power: The Vietnam-era Daisy Cutter, one of the largest conventional weapons ever used, was designed to flatten a forest into a helicopter landing zone with a blast equal to about 15,000 pounds of TNT. 

Now imagine that someone says, “Those conventional bombs aren’t destructive enough. Let’s invent a weapon a million times more powerful, one that releases radiation that magnifies the killing effects for generations. And let’s make 16,000 of those weapons.”

A sane world would respond, “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

But in the real world, it’s no joke.

Today, 70 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world has 16,400 nuclear weapons—93 percent of them in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. The first H-bomb had the force of around 10 million tons of TNT, more than a million times as powerful as the worst conventional weapons.

So in some ways it comes as no surprise that first responders—groups on the front lines of dealing with disasters—have become leaders in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons. For organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the reasoning is clear: There simply is no way to adequately respond in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Thus the Red Cross has called for legally binding steps toward the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

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No Nukes!

IN APRIL, THOUSANDS of people from across the United States and the world, joined by activists and A-bomb survivors from Japan, will flock to New York to demand that the nuclear powers fulfill their nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations to negotiate a legally binding agreement to completely eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

The NPT Review Conference, held at the U.N. every five years, presents an important opportunity for the 189 signatory nations and for civil society to ensure that this treaty is implemented. The treaty rests on three pillars: 1) non-nuclear states forswear becoming nuclear powers; 2) all signatory nations have the right to generate nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (a serious flaw); and 3) the P-5 nations (U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China) are obligated to engage in good-faith negotiations to completely eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Forty-five years after the treaty went into effect, the P-5 have yet to fulfill their part of the bargain, leading to a loss of faith by a growing number of nations and the danger that some will opt out of the treaty to equalize the imbalance of nuclear terror. With the U.S. and Russia having engaged in nuclear war exercises during the Ukraine crisis, simulated U.S. nuclear attacks against North Korea, the U.S.-Chinese arms race, and India and Pakistan again at loggerheads, April’s review conference provides a critical opportunity to press for nuclear weapons abolition and to build the nuclear disarmament movement.

How great is the danger of nuclear war? Recent studies show that a limited nuclear war—say, between India and Pakistan, which have around 100 weapons each—could kill an estimated 2 billion people from the resulting global famine. The use of significantly more weapons could bring on nuclear winter and the end of life as we know it.

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'War is Terrorism'

ONE DAY, WHEN I was a student at Christ the King Elementary School in my hometown of Richland, Wash., the nuns gathered all the kids, two by two, and walked us outside to the parking lot. There sat a mobile van emblazoned with the logo of the Atomic Energy Commission and the words “Whole Body Scanner.”

One at a time, we were led into the van, where we laid on a white-sheathed table beneath a large, (scary), medical-looking machine. There was a whirring sound, and after a minute or two we were told to get up and make room for the next child. We weren’t told what the process was for, but it’s safe to assume that the government was interested in the effects of radiation on those of us who were “downwinders” from one of the nation’s largest nuclear complexes.

Richland was (and is) the bedroom community for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford was built in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, the massive wartime program that led to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Hanford’s role was the production of plutonium for the world’s first nuclear weapon, the “test” bomb detonated in New Mexico a few weeks before Hiroshima, and for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later.

Those weapons were dropped 69 years ago, but the debate about their morality continues. It emerged again this spring when the two Missouri senators proposed renaming D.C.’s Union Station after Harry S. Truman, who authorized history’s only nuclear attack on people. One commenter in a related discussion wrote, “I have a problem with judging past cultures by today's standards. To end WWII we dropped bombs on cities filled with innocent civilians. By today's standards that would be condemned. Are you willing to say we should not have done that to end WWII?”

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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.

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84-year-old Nun Gets 35 Months for Breaking into Nuclear Facility

Transform Now Plowshares activist Sister Megan Rice. Photo: Michael Patrick, courtesy Knoxville News Sentinel/RNS

An 84-year-old nun was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on Tuesday for breaking into a Tennessee nuclear facility in July 2012.

Sister Megan Rice and two other anti-nuclear activists were convicted last May of breaking into a federal complex that stores enriched uranium.

“Please have no leniency on me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me,” Rice told the federal judge at her sentencing hearing, according to USA Today.

Little Boys With Toys

Kim Jong-un in 2009. Photo by petersnoopy / Flickr.com

Kim Jong-un in 2009. Photo by petersnoopy / Flickr.com

The fact that North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un is threatening the world with nuclear holocaust does what World War I did to many theologians who had presumed that history was on a course of inevitable progress.

It is not.

The power of death is enticing, a sin to which Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, later confessed. The human will to power becomes evil when real soldiers, real nuclear bombs, real missiles, and real threats of destruction are mistaken for childhood toys or computer games where human folly can be erased by hitting a reset button.

We are all children inside, for good and for ill.

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