THE SHOCK OF headlines leaves us unable to distinguish between the merely awful and a world historic threat. The Catholic crisis and even the war on terrorism will be mere footnotes to the present age if the conflict between India and Pakistan moves from border skirmishing to general war. As the prospect of such escalation grows more likely by the day, here are several points deserving of renewed emphasis:
There has never been a shooting war between two nuclear powers. And war, by definition, carries its own irrational momentum. The possibility of new Hiroshimas on the subcontinent is real, perhaps imminent.
From within the dispute between India and Pakistan, issues of national sovereignty and religious identity seem worth the risk even of nuclear war, but from outside there is no conceivable justification of that risk. This is the position of the United States and other nations.
But that contradiction adheres in every situation of war. From within a dispute, drastic action is always justified. From outside it, compromise, negotiation, and restraint are always seen as preferable to violence. The India-Pakistan war, in other words, is a revelation of the futility of war as such. Therefore it is not enough for the United States and other nations to urge restraint on New Delhi and Islamabad.
The escalation of this conflict has not occurred in a vacuum. Two things have made it possible: a broad international climate of moral approbation in favor of war, and widespread indifference to the threat still posed by nuclear weapons. The real and immediate prospect of a nuclear war must generate changes on both these fronts.
There was a time when the populations of nations got out ahead of their governments on the urgent question of nuclear war. From the ''Ban the Bomb'' movement of the 1950s to the ''Nuclear Freeze'' movement of the 1970s, from student activists to aging peaceniks, from the scientists of Pugwash to the mothers of Womens' Action for Nuclear Disarmament, from antinuclear organizations of physicians and lawyers to those of business people and bishops - the voices of ordinary citizens have been raised in the past to tremendous effect on this question. Indeed, it may be that the arms race itself was reversed by those voices, once governments were forced to hear them.
Where are such voices today? Or, to ask the question another way, what happened to the tradition of ''resistance''? During the height of the Cold War, many human beings across the globe discovered that the only way to live humanly in the nuclear age was in active opposition to the coming prospect of the nuclear nightmare. After 1990, the danger seemed to abate, and the resistance evaporated.
The same broad population that once regarded the risk of nuclear war as an urgent public problem accepted the myth that nuclear war would never happen. In America, this led to indifference even as government officials abandoned nuclear-limiting treaties (Test Ban, ABM), proposed new nuclear weapons programs (battlefield nukes, militarization of space), and reiterated the dogma that American power rests on its permanent nuclear arsenal.
Hardly anyone seemed to notice as these trends in the United States reinforced the determination of other nations to wield such power. Hardly anyone seemed to notice, even more concretely, when the moral capacity of the United States to object to nuclear testing by India and Pakistan was undercut by the US Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The context within which India and Pakistan have moved to the brink of nuclear war has thus been defined not only by the irresponsibility of other governments, but by the detachment of citizens everywhere who no longer see the prevention of such war as involving them. And now? Are we really to watch the unfolding of the crisis along the border of India and Pakistan as if it is the Catholic bishops, say, in contest with the press? As if it is the FBI in blame-game competition with the CIA?
We owe it to the ''fate of the earth,'' in Jonathan Schell's great phrase, to do far more than that. We must, first, think the unthinkable again, imagining what the world after even a limited nuclear war would be like. And we must face the question that such a possible future already puts to every one of us: What are you doing to try to prevent this disaster?
The only way to live humanly - still - is in resistance to war. The prevention of war, in the nuclear age, must be a central purpose of every person's life. Scientists, physicians, lawyers, bishops, mothers, students, writers - where are you? We must remember what we learned already, but forgot; what the leaders of India and Pakistan are showing us again: If we human beings leave this problem to governments, we are doomed.