Before nuclear weapons, after nuclear weapons . . .
“The latter era, of course,” writes Noam Chomsky, “opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.”
We’re not even close. Or so it seems on a bad day. “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” asked columnist Colman McCarthy. Well, for one thing, we don’t wrap illiteracy in a shroud of glory and call it war or self-defense or national security; nor have we developed a multi-trillion-dollar industry called the Illiteracy Industrial Complex (or maybe we have, and call it television). In any case, the human race has a demonstrated ability to pull itself out of an instinct-driven existence — but now finds itself at a suicidal impasse, unable, or uncertain how, to commit to taking the next step upwards, beyond violent conflict resolution and the mentality of “us vs. them,” and into a fuller connection with the universe.
This moment, as we straddle the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a time to reflect on what happens next. Violence — disorganized and, of course, highly organized and extraordinarily sophisticated — remains humanity’s obsession, preoccupation and primary distraction. Despite the ability we now possess to destroy ourselves and most life on this planet, we have barely begun to question our reflexive violence. Doing so requires looking courageously inward.
If there’s a guiding principle in this journey, perhaps it begins here:
“. . . conflict escalates — that is, moves increasingly toward violence — according to the degree of dehumanization in the situation,” writes Stephanie Van Hook, executive director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, summarizing the work of Michael Nagler, who wrote The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action. “Violence, in other words, doesn’t occur without dehumanization.”
This is simplicity itself, is it not? As long as we respect the person or group with whom we’re in conflict, both sides, eventually, win. It gets tricky, however, when one side adamantly refuses to show respect, and even more so when there’s an imbalance of power involved — and when one’s life is in danger. What does “showing respect” even mean in such circumstances? It could mean “turning the other cheek,” but two millennia on, this concept remains misunderstood as passive compliance and buried six feet deep in cynicism.
Gandhi re-energized the idea and called it “satyagraha”: seize the truth. That is to say, refuse either to dehumanize the other person or let the other person do it to you. Stand with courage and change the world. But the popular understanding of this idea is precarious. The media extol violent elimination of conflict — poof! evil loses — and capitalism caters to every side in almost every global feud. Ongoing dehumanization of one’s enemy is a source of unending profit, if not an economic necessity.
And this, I repeat, is the situation in a nuclear-armed world.
“Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestation?”
These are the words of Gen. Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, keeper of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, who, post-retirement, became haunted by the work he did and turned into a zealot for nuclear disarmament.
In his essay, “Death by Deterrence,” Butler noted that, “from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it.”
The conclusion I draw from this observation, by a man who has stared into the nuclear abyss, is that the temptation to dehumanize “the other” — whoever that may be — and keep the world, as it were, safe for violence, surmounts the rationality of survival. Continuing to develop nuclear weapons, generation after generation, means that one day they will be used. And in a world festooned with dehumanized people, such a day will be sooner rather than later.
It’s easier to hate than to love. We can maintain hatred for “the other” and remain certain of who we are. To love — especially beyond our obvious self-interest — is no small feat. Every religion reaches toward this peak of being in its teaching, but falls short of it in its practical application. Indeed, sustaining hatred for an enemy creates group coherence. And violence sustains the hatred, because without it, one would have to accept the blame for every murder committed in the name of that hatred.
As Rabbi Michael Lerner recently wrote: “. . . one of the primary victims of the war between Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held together for several thousand years.”
I think we do have the moral and intellectual capacity to control our worst instincts, but I don’t know if we have the will, or the time, to rebuild our lives, and our global civilization, around the best of who we are. Another anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us that the clock is ticking.