Talk about naive. The Union of Concerned Scientists apparently thought the Democratic and Republican national conventions would be appropriate events at which to bring up the awkwardly substantive topic of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles (6,000 or so) and policy (insane).
So, as part of a larger campaign of informative ads in the two convention cities, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, they rented billboard space at the two airports and greeted travelers with ads depicting an aerial view of that city, with one of those ground zero bull's-eyes superimposed on the downtown area, and the words: "When only one nuclear bomb could destroy a city like (Minneapolis, Denver) . . . We don't need 6,000." Below the picture, the party's presidential nominee - one per city - was urged "to get serious about reducing the nuclear threat."
Well, OK. Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear what happened next: In Minneapolis, some people found the ad "scary," which it was supposed to be, and "anti-McCain," which it wasn't, but airports are the sovereign turf of Corporate America, which has quite a few values higher than free speech. Chief among them, I think, is "happy, happy."
And Northwest Airlines, the official airline of the Republican National Convention, which also controls the advertising space in Concourse G of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, found the ad to be in clear violation of this value. So it requested Clear Channel Outdoor, a branch of the media conglomerate that originally sold the billboard space to Union of Concerned Scientists, to remove the ad.
Clear Channel, best known for homogenizing the nation's airwaves (it owns more than 1,200 radio stations, and pushes a lineup of right-wing talk show hosts), did Northwest one better. It yanked the ad in Minneapolis, then preemptively yanked it again in Denver, where no one had complained.
Phew - threat averted! Let the conventions proceed with all due hoopla and empty intrigue.
"By maintaining thousands of highly accurate nuclear weapons on alert, the United States perpetuates the only threat that could destroy it as a functioning society: a large-scale attack by Russia launched either without authorization, by accident, or by mistake because of a false warning of an incoming U.S. attack."
So UCS points out, in a statement on its Web site called "Toward True Security." America's security establishment remains calcified in Cold War paranoia and, incredibly, hair-trigger nuclear alert - and no one talks about it. What threat do we really face? By any rational assessment, the greatest danger to our survival is from nuclear weapons themselves. But we don't have the mechanism for such a discussion, at least not in the common spheres of national life: politics and popular culture. We continue to maintain and upgrade our nuclear arsenal and national life simply moves on around it. Yet:
"By giving nuclear weapons so large and visible a role in U.S. policy," the UCS statement goes on, ". . . the United States has increased the incentive for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons, and reduced the political costs to them of doing so."
Nuclear technology is more accessible than ever, and more and more countries feel the need to join "the club," fueling the arrival of what many observers consider a second nuclear age - far more "egalitarian" than the first. At least 40 non-nuclear states currently possess large quantities of highly enriched uranium, and the risk of terrorists possessing "suitcase nukes" is greater than ever. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has been monitoring the state of global nuclear risk since 1947, recently reset its doomsday clock to five minutes to midnight.
No, this is not an easy discussion to have, but what is the cost of not having it? What is the cost of remaining in a state of suppressed disquiet, fearing some vague "threat level orange" and watching increasingly bizarre security measures - especially at the airport - tighten around us? What is the cost of not making a nuke-free world a political priority in the United States?
"By contributing to a climate in which possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate," the statement continues, "the United States has also undermined the ability of the international community to prevent more states from acquiring them. . . . The United States can, and should, take the lead in promoting an effort to clear the path to a world free of nuclear weapons."
Like I say, what was the Union of Concerned Scientists thinking - trying to put this matter on the agenda of America's major political parties as they meet to choose new leaders and determine our national direction?
"Eventually we want to live in a world free of nuclear weapons," UCS spokesman Aaron Huertas told me. But here's the thing. As Clear Channel and Northwest Airlines understood, we can live in that world right now just by taking that unpleasant ad down - no politics in the airport, please - and maintaining a state of impenetrable denial.