Thinking the Unthinkable
Looking back on the events succeeding the 11 September attack on America, Huck Gutman feels the specter of massive nuclear destruction lurks behind a horizon that may be closer than we perceive
All a poet can do today is warn.
— Wilfred Owen, 1918
IN the USA today more has fallen than two huge towers at the World Trade Center. The collapse of the towers, preeminent symbols of modernism, urbanism and capitalism, was spectacular. Through the medium of television, images of their dramatic implosion circled the world; as the dramatic footage of their disintegration was shown over and over again, their collapse seemed a reminder of the poet Yeats' warning that "things fall apart, the center cannot hold".
Yeats continued with a pronouncement that "the blood-dimmed tide is loosed", words which resound poignantly in America. More Americans died on 11 September than in any single military battle in US history. The men and women who perished were innocents, people whose only shared characteristic was that they were working in a particular building on that fateful day. They were not even all Americans: more than 250 were Indians, over 200 Pakistanis, and many citizens of other nations were among the slaughtered.
But the American nation itself is not innocent, even if the victims were. There is much discussion in America today of the role the USA played in the creation of Osama bin Laden: American support for the mujahideen when they fought against the Soviet presence, the CIA training of bin Laden himself. Likewise, there is public discussion of the significant role played by American imperial hegemony in forming the social conditions that afford terrorism widespread legitimacy.
America too easily countenances extreme disparities of wealth between nations and within nations, too often supports military coups over democratic process, too readily impoverishes billions in a relentless drive to augment the profits of multinational corporations.
American politicians and statesmen, American corporations and financiers, play a major role in sustaining and increasing a vastly inequitable distribution of wealth in the modern world. Lest that generality cloud the stark facts, let it be said that American business, American government and the American military are in part responsible for a world order in which billions have insufficient food and shelter, a life expectancy shorter than necessary and a daily struggle for existence harsher than it need be.
In assessing culpability, it may be useful to recall the war in Vietnam three decades ago. A misguided and tragic American intervention prolonged an internal conflict in Vietnam and multiplied its casualties, yet many times the leadership of what was then North Vietnam stated that it was the American government, not the American people, which was their enemy.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center prodded Americans to re-examine who and what they are. If there is a widespread recognition -- even in part among the higher officials of the Republican administration of President George W Bush -- that American policies have helped create a world in which terrorism arises and is even celebrated, there is also a widespread recognition that Americans have laudable qualities.
Hundreds of firemen died as they rushed into the burning towers, at what would prove to be the cost of their own lives, to rescue their fellow citizens. All across America, people have been generous with their help and with donations of blood and money. If there is a special lesson to the tragedy, it is in large measure that Americans can be heroic and generous. At times, in the midst of an economic miracle that provided great material benefits, Americans had forgotten which were their most important characteristics.
But there are also other less comforting recognitions. One is that the world is not always a secure place. Much as Americans may bemoan their loss of innocence, something has been gained from the sudden eruption of violence, tragedy and death in American life. For too many people in too many nations, daily life is profoundly insecure. Hounded by hunger and homelessness, forced to migrate by persecution and poverty, imprisoned or silenced by totalitarian powers, individuals and families struggle to maintain life itself. Too many of the world's citizens find the word "joy" alien to their daily experience.
I very much wish the terrorist attack had not happened, and in no means do I wish to justify it. But sometimes salutary consequences issue even from dastardly deeds. While each of us might wish our globe to be a secure haven for all its inhabitants, until that glorious day arrives when all live with the basic needs met and with freedom and safety guaranteed, there is value to reminding every resident of the planet how precious, how desired, how needful such security is.
The least comforting of all the recognitions that emerge from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is so dire that I hesitate to write about it. Perhaps only through indirection can I address an issue so fearsome that I tremble at the thought of acknowledging it in print.
A week ago, in a post-graduate seminar on modern American poetry at the University of Vermont, my students were reading a long work from the 1950s by the poet William Carlos Williams. Noting that in several passages Williams wrote about "the bomb", a student asked, "Why do so many writers of the 1950s seem to write about the bomb?" I answered as best I could, explaining that in 1945 in a controversial endeavor to end World War II, the USA had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vaporizing both cities and their inhabitants. The ensuing 10 years saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a second nuclear power, and a "defense" strategy that came to be known as "mutually assured destruction". Both nations built more and more nuclear weapons (the recent nuclear history of India and Pakistan echoes this former competition) on the premise that having enough bombs to damage your enemy as heavily as he could damage you -- being capable of totally demolishing your enemy if he decided to demolish you -- would lead each country to desist from ever using a nuclear device.
Horrifying as the policy of mutually assured destruction was, it did serve a purpose. In the ensuing decades, neither the USA nor the Soviet Union nor Britain nor France or China ever detonate in combat any of the nuclear weapons they developed and stockpiled. Thus, I explained to my contemporary students, Americans had grown used to living in a nuclear world without the fear that at any moment large segments, or even all of humankind could be extinguished by nuclear war. Anxiety receded: though "mutually assured destruction" was a terrible price to pay, putting, as it did, the annihilation of nations on the table, the policy did serve to preclude nuclear war for four decades.
The horrific aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is that an anxiety over nuclear destruction has returned, and with good justification. The world is -- for the first time in the almost 40 years since President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev played nuclear brinkmanship over the Soviet Union's installation of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba 90 miles from the USA -- a place in which nuclear war could erupt.
While it is true that perceptive men and women in India and Pakistan -- and those in other nations who understand that the existence of both nuclear arms and mutual hostility in South Asia is a dangerous mixture -- could see a possibility for nuclear war, that possibility is now global.
The thought is terrifying. We as a world community are imperiled in a way we have never been threatened before, except between 1950 and 1963. It is possible to imagine, not in science fiction nor in malignant fantasy but in a rational examination of the world we inhabit, a nuclear conflagration of nightmarish proportions. It is possible that the annihilation of humankind is on a horizon that will appear in the light of tomorrow's dawn.
I personally distrust apocalyptic thinking. To think about final and overwhelming cataclysms can, more easily than we acknowledge, shape our hidden desires. Sigmund Freud was eerily perceptive when he recognized that at the core of every dream is a wish.
Thus it is that if we dream more and more often about ultimate conflagrations, about the end of the world, we may find ourselves so fascinated by the apocalypse that we head straight for it. Our visions of love and companionship, of joy and art and the liveliness of the body, sustain us and keep human society going. Our visions of apocalypse have their uses -- in the midst of World War I the poet Wilfred Owen said, "All a poet can do today is warn" -- but dwelling on them overmuch can only be harmful.
Yet despite my fear of apocalyptic thinking, it seems foolhardy not to acknowledge, not to recognize that in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the world we all inhabit is a much more dangerous place. The possibility is so horrific that we cover it with silence: recent events have increased the possibility of a nuclear war.
It is not beyond belief, for instance, that the American response to the terrorism, its attack on Afghanistan, could destabilize the political situation in neighboring Pakistan. One of the world's nuclear powers, Pakistan's destabilization could result in delivering nuclear warheads into the hands of those with militant agendas.
Such a situation in turn might incite a new and profoundly dangerous war between India and Pakistan, one that issued in the use of nuclear devices. Whether the first use of such weapons is more likely to come from Pakistan or India is immaterial: South Asia is currently closer to a possible nuclear war than it has been heretofore.
Tragically, the potential of such a nuclear disaster in the subcontinent is but one possible consequence of the events of 11 September.
American and European intervention in Afghanistan, coupled with the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists, may give creditability to those whose paranoia sees a modernized West as the indefatigable enemy of Islam, or those whose paranoia sets up Islam as the enemy of the West.
So the minority of Muslims who believe in the necessity of jihad against infidels may very well gain adherents. What happens if, to take only one instance, the intifada of the Palestinians is converted into regional jihad, since Israel has as its final line of defense a nuclear arsenal? Or, to take another instance, if an Islamic republic declares a holy war against the USA, Britain, or Russia?
Conversely, what happens if Western politicians who believe in the thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington that a global conflict between Islam and the West is inevitable, gain ascendancy and then decide, cowboy style, to "take out Iraq" with nuclear devices?
What if terrorists have been able to secure the fissionable materials it has been rumored they have sought? What would occur if a terrorist set off a nuclear device in the middle of New York, Los Angeles, Paris or Moscow? Would not the likelihood of a nuclear response be great?
If the destabilizing forces set in motion by the events of 11 September precipitate new regional wars in Asia or Eastern Europe, the consequences may be equally terrifying.
What if, in their own defense, currently non-nuclear nations purchase surplus nuclear bombs from impoverished, cash-strapped former Soviet republics?
These are all questions, not answers; they are all possibilities -- hopefully distant ones -- and not probabilities. But they reveal the insecurity that has resulted from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is not something peculiar to Americans alone.
"No man is an island," wrote John Donne several centuries ago. That statement has never been more true than today, when the specter of massive nuclear destruction lurks behind a horizon that may be closer than we think.