I had never seen a nuclear missile silo. For years, I had known about the 49 Minuteman missiles not far from my home, beneath the prairie grasslands of northeast Colorado. Each is armed with a bomb many times more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had heard of these silos. But I was not prepared for the impact of seeing them.
First, you notice the distances. To drive across the whole Colorado field takes two or three hours. That's just the smallest piece of the field, which stretches across southeast Wyoming and western Nebraska. And that's just the smallest of the three Minuteman fields (the bigger ones are in South Dakota and Montana). The whole upper Great Plains has been turned into a huge arsenal, with enough firepower to effectively destroy civilization in the northern hemisphere in a single day.
Then you see the eerie contrast between the beautifully soft, golden, grass-covered prairie and the stark white, cold, hard, concrete slab that covers the silo, surrounded by a ten-foot-high chain fence. "Deadly Force Authorized," the sign on the gate warns. Translation: If someone paid by the U.S. government (with our tax dollars) does not like what you are doing out there, he can shoot you, no questions asked.
Of course, that is now official U.S. policy around the world. If our leaders don't like what's going on in some nation or other, they claim the right to overthrow its government-by any means necessary. Even Minuteman missiles? if it comes to that, "Deadly Force Authorized." No questions asked.
At least, not enough questions asked by the U.S. media and public to stop this American arrogance, which is undermining respect for our nation throughout the world. When pollsters ask, "What nation with weapons of mass destruction poses the greatest the greatest threat to peace?", growing majorities in many nations quickly respond: the USA.
Why does the U.S. adopt this aggressive attitude toward the international community? Don't blame it on 9/11. The Minuteman missiles have been there for 35 years. But U.S. bombs, guns, and policies have been threatening people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds for much longer than that.
When I saw the startling contrast between grassy wilderness and concrete silo, the whole picture came clear. The first Europeans who came to America were afraid of the wilderness and the people who lived in the wilderness. So they couldn't leave the wilderness alone. They had to try to tame it. They decided that the only way to cope with their fear was to have weapons powerful enough to wipe out any enemy.
For centuries, we have suffered a national epidemic of fear-fear not only of the wilderness, but of "wild" people, people different from us, people we don't yet understand. We have built our nation on the belief that the only way to cure the epidemic of fear is more power, more weapons, more efforts to control those who are different. The deadly combination of fear, power, and threat has poisoned the pristine wilderness and the soul of America.
The sickness in our national soul led us to fill the wilderness with nuclear missiles, the ultimate symbol of our fear and power, our hope of overpowering every wilderness, everything thing we can't control. It led us to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Now it has led three nuns to jail. I went to a missile silo, along with hundreds of others, the day after a federal judge sent the nuns to prison for the "crime" of pouring their own blood on a missile silo. On July 26, those hundreds spent the whole day driving, standing, singing, praying, and demonstrating in the blistering heat.
They knew that America's weapons of mass destruction only make the world more frightening for all of us. At the same time, though, nuclear weapons tempt us with a fantasy of infinite power as the antidote to fear. Of course, that fantasy never can work. You can't cure a disease with the very thing that feeds the disease. You can't get beyond fear by creating more fear. You only build up more fear, which leads to more violence in the vain hope of protecting yourself.
The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a good time to reflect on our national epidemic of fearing the unknown and trying to conquer it with threats of destruction-threats that were carried out all too often, bringing violence and death the American way.
It is also a good time to reflect on the antinuclear movement, which brought those hundreds to the missile silos in the wilderness. The movement has seemed to disappear several times, only to be reborn again and again. Antinuclear activists won't go away until the weapons of mass destruction have gone away. The weapons won't go away until we find constructive remedies to cure our fear and create a healthy national life.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Chernus@colorado.edu