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"Now I am become death."

"Now I am become death."

I Am Become Death

Roger Kimmel Smith

One of the most brilliant quips from the social critic Paul Goodman is that "technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science." Goodman was astute enough to recognize that technological "progress" was not a monolithic process but the consequence of many decisions made by individuals and institutions. Any specific technology will bring about changes, sometimes unexpected ones, for good or ill, often both. The challenge, which Goodman implored us to conceive as a moral one, is to make it likely, if not certain, that the technologies we choose to bring into the world, considering the full spectrum of their likely effects, will make the world a better place to live.

Of all the technological developments of the 20th century, perhaps the one that's been hardest for human beings to live with has been the atomic bomb. What moral values does its invention imply? It started amid the terror of total warfare, with Einstein's famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt, written weeks before the German invasion of Poland. The ethics implicit in this letter are clear-they are the ethics of the jungle, the ethics of war at its most brutal: do it to them before they do it to you; kill or be killed.

Inevitably, the government's utmost capacity was devoted to developing the bomb, and inevitably, once developed, it was used in warfare. There are many people who still accept the justification President Truman offered to a war-weary population-that the atomic bombings were necessary to secure the enemy's surrender. I don't mean to discuss why this argument was disingenuous; the late Howard Zinn did that admirably, among others. I would merely point out the moral philosophy upon which Truman was relying: the end justifies the means.

The existence of nuclear weapons has challenged and undermined human faith in ourselves, our works, and our future. Many writers, none more brilliant or persistent than Jonathan Schell, have dwelled upon how the dawn of the nuclear age transformed the human condition, making it impossible to assume an indefinite human future, making the survival of the species essentially up to us-that is, up to a small number of individuals with custody of this technology, above all the president of the United States.

In the book Bomb Power, published this year, the eminent historian Garry Wills gives us a dispassionate analysis of the way nuclear weapons have bent our republic out of shape. A few reviewers have quibbled with some of the scholarship in Wills' book and questioned the scope of his conclusions, but to me the basic case he makes is unassailable. Incorporating nuclear weapons into the U.S. military apparatus and making them the linchpin of American defense policy set the government on a path that cannot be reconciled with the intent of the founders or the instructions they provided in the Constitution. It wrecked their elaborate system of checks and balances by centering power in the executive branch and in the office of the president. Not only that, it gave the executive an invincible tool with which to accumulate ever more power, "bomb power," through secrecy, covert activity, the concealment of information not only from mere citizens but even from Congress, and the overarching climate of never-ending life-or-death emergency that made national security a trump card over all other functions of government.

All of these dynamics, Wills argues, were in place right from the beginning of the Manhattan Project. They only gained in importance as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings provided a seamless segue between World War II and the Cold War. The vague whiff of an opportunity to address some of these abnormalities may have become detectable with the end of the Cold War, but before we knew it, the window slammed shut on 9/11. To Wills, the tyrannical excesses of the Bush/Cheney "war on terror"-torture, rendition, warrantless surveillance, signing statements, trashing habeas corpus, the "unitary executive" theory-all followed logically from the arrogation of executive power during World War II and the immediate postwar years, all set into motion by the bomb, its equipment, the day-to-day doomsday routines of its deployment, and the apocalyptic fear in which it is all enshrouded.

There's a moral philosophy for you. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Under President Obama, these abuses continue, despite the president's proclaimed commitment to the "ultimate" objective of a nuclear-weapon-free world. His administration openly acknowledged, for example, that it has pre-authorized the assassination of several American citizens, including Anwar al-Awlaki, in the name of the ongoing war with terrorists.

Paul Goodman's awareness of the depths of this "chronic acute emergency" led him to participate in the "Worldwide General Strike for Peace" in early 1962. "When the institutions of society threaten the very foundation of the social contract, namely, biological safety," he said, "then the social contract is very near to being dissolved." He advocated "the rational-animal response of saying, No. We won't go along with it. Stop it." Easier said than done.


If the damage that nuclear stockpiles, never fired, have done to domestic rule of law in the United States of America concerns you, rest assured that at the international level it's only more manifold. After all, many people around the world have noticed that the American president, and certain other Leaders of Nations, reserve for themselves the right to murder other people by the hundreds of millions and maybe put an end to complex life on planet Earth. And, by the way, they may decide to do this at any time and would probably deliberate for a couple of minutes at most before giving the order.

It is insanity of the highest degree, of course, the grimmest kind of absurdity. Yet somehow half a century's leaders, the serious men in authority, have wanted us to believe that they believed and everybody had to believe in all this Dr. Strangelove stuff, "deterrence" and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and 24/7 hair-trigger alert, and of course we all remember Richard Nixon's "madman theory"-yes, the idea that it was sane to make people think the president just might be insane enough to start a nuclear war. (It helped that the very Strangelovish and oh-so-serious Dr. Kissinger was always at his side.)

But sometime while they were all "thinking about the unthinkable," somebody had the good sense to ask, shouldn't there be a law about all this? Isn't there such a thing as international law, and if so, couldn't it just give one big hello? Say sorry, folks, you can't do this, this is all beyond the pale, weapons of war aren't supposed to wipe out entire populations or cause irreparable harm to the planet's environment? Well, in fact, while a whole body of international law had rather quietly been developed during the 20th century, including laws intended to govern what states could and couldn't legally do during armed conflict, apparently nobody had ever put nuclear weapons into the equation.

This was the impetus for the World Court Project, a diplomatic campaign to place the question before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The project succeeded, in one of the disarmament movement's few great successes of recent times. In 1994 the U.N. General Assembly requested an advisory opinion from the World Court on the question, "Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons permitted in any circumstance under international law?" The following fall inside the Peace Palace in The Hague, twenty-two nations presented oral arguments to the court in an operatic series of hearings. The majority of states urged the court to answer the question before it with a resounding no, but the nuclear-armed states and their allies argued that the question was out of bounds and the court should dismiss the case. If it must offer an opinion, France and the U.K. said, the judges must be mindful of the central role that nuclear deterrence policy has played in keeping the peace.

The court's pronouncement of July 8, 1996 offers a sharp insight into the gap between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. The ICJ's fourteen justices searched international law but could find neither an authorization nor an express prohibition to use or threaten to use a nuke. They agreed unanimously that the requirements of international law, especially humanitarian law, must apply in this case. But on the basic question-is it permitted?-they split down the middle, seven to seven. Court president Mohammed Bedjaoui of Algeria used a casting vote to affirm, jointly, two virtually contradictory and highly obfuscatory propositions. On the one hand, threat or use "would generally be contrary" to international law-but no full stop. "However," added the court with a sigh, "in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

It's the big lacuna-or in Latin legalese, a "non-liquet." The nuclear weapon stood accused in the world's highest court, but not only did the defendant hang the jury and all the judges, it delivered mass destruction on the law. That's one bad dude. 

Chief judge Bedjaoui allowed himself to admit in a side statement:

The very nature of this blind weapon therefore has a destabilizing effect on humanitarian law which regulates discernment in the type of weapon used. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilize humanitarian law which is the law of the lesser evil. The existence of nuclear weapons is therefore a challenge to the very existence of humanitarian law....Atomic warfare and humanitarian law therefore appear to be mutually exclusive: the existence of the one automatically implies the non-existence of the other.

Bomb Power again. I am become Death, destroyer of laws.

The court made one final point, an important one. The only way to remedy this holocaust-sized gap in the law would be to "pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion" a negotiated abolition of the weapon, as biological and chemical weapons are banned by treaty. Such a ban is, in fact, already legally mandated, by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in its Article VI. That's the good news, but getting there is the rub. A trio of prominent anti-nuclear lawyers recently wrote:

It is not hyperbole to say that the challenge to human civilization presented by nuclear weapons may be the consummate test of the human race's ability to survive. The very existence of nuclear weapons requires that human societies-both the most technologically efficient and affluent of societies and societies still struggling to establish their place in the world-overcome the historical and contemporary human burden of aggressiveness and tribalism.

Paul Goodman had arrived at the same conclusions by 1967. He even had the chance to state them, rather caustically, at a top-level symposium of the National Security Industrial Association in Washington, in a speech Goodman published under the title "A Causerie at the Military-Industrial"

The survival of the human species, at least in a civilized state, demands radical disarmament, and there are several feasible political means to achieve this if we willed it. By the same token, we must drastically de-energize the archaic system of nation-states....Instead, you-and your counterparts in Europe, Russia, and China-have rigidified and aggrandized the states with a Maginot-line kind of policy called Deterrence, which has continually escalated rather than stabilized...Past a certain point your operations have increased insecurity rather than diminished it. But this has been to your interest.

At the time, the way Goodman saw through the masters of war in the audience made them want to launch MIRVed tomatoes at him. Would any of them hear it today?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance wordsmith based in Ithaca, New York. He has written for The Progressive, Ithaca Times, National Geographic, Propaganda Review, Disarmament Times, Syncopated Times, Common Dreams, and Global Issues in Context.

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