Last Friday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set back The Doomsday Clock from 11:55 to 11:54—six minutes to midnight, instead of 5. I find it hard to take much comfort in this "progress." On the long lists of things most people worry about, nuclear weapons don't even show up. It didn't help that the Bush administration used the term "weapons of mass destruction" to lump biological, chemical and nuclear weapons into the same category—which is a little like lumping sparklers and exploding stars: only a nuclear weapon can vaporize a city in an instant, and we have many thousands of them on "hair trigger" alert. And during the Bush years, the investment in developing new weapons rapidly increased while investment in securing nuclear weapons through-out the world so that they don't fall into the hands of terrorists almost disappeared.
For this reason alone I'm glad Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize: you can't begin to fix a problem if you don't start talking about it, putting it back on collective radar screens, from which it has all but disappeared.
In fact, for the first time, the control of our nuclear arsenal is in the hands of people who have never seen a nuclear explosion first hand. It is not a pretty sight.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima—left deliberately pristine in order to better assess the damage—the place was quite literally flattened. People were reduced to charred cinders, survivors hobbling around with their skin peeled off and hanging from their bodies like rags; many were so badly burned that their faces didn't look human, and their neighbors couldn't tell if they were looking at them from front or back. As one of the American airmen riding in the plane that dropped the bomb described it: "If you want to describe it as something you are familiar with, a pot of boiling black oil..." Another airman said: "I don't believe anyone ever expected to see a sight quite like that. Where we had seen a clear city two minutes before, we could now no longer see the city."
And this, I'm sorry to remind us, was a very small bomb compared to the vastly more powerful ones that fill our arsenals today.
What is to be done?
As Marcelo said in a recent post, we've put very powerful weapons in the hands of a "morally immature species, prone to horrible fits of destructive rage." His sentiments echoed those of the diplomat George Kennan, who said at the funeral of J Robert Oppenheimer, "father" of the atomic bomb: "On no one did there ever rest with greater cruelty the dilemmas evolved by the recent conquest by human beings of a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength."
These big brains of ours are great at making weapons—but unable, it seems, to really understand what they can do, or come up with means of protecting ourselves (from ourselves).
I once asked Frank Oppenheimer, younger brother of Robert—also a physicist who worked on the bomb and spent the rest of his life (like so many others) trying to figure out what to do about it—why he and his colleagues hadn't managed to convey just how scary and final the nuclear threat is.
His answer was that fear was counterproductive. "We tried making people scared for 25 years and it didn't work," he said. Fear makes people behave irrationally, even pushing us into pretending the nuclear bombs aren't there.
What you need to do, he said, is to make people ANGRY.
The terrors that faced the world were so serious, Frank thought—and so impervious, it seemed, to conventional solutions—that "we really have to begin to think somewhat outrageously."
I have to admit that I've been very impressed by the power of social networks such as you Twitter and Facebook to bring people together—and especially by some of those videos gone viral on YouTube showing masses of entirely disconnected people in train stations or public plazas suddenly coming together to dance and sing and hug each other. The seed in most of these events is a handful of performance artists who get things going; but within minutes, clumps of bored teenagers, bent-over little old ladies (and men), button down types in business suits, every day workers and the whole unlikely mess of humanity starts dancing and singing or hugging and simply being silly.
Something about these events touches a common humanity. Can we use their power or something like it to get people to see through all the things that divide us for long enough to look nuclear weapons in the eye? To stop fighting against each other and fight together for survival as a species?
Maybe even this is not outrageous enough.
I do have a feeling, though, that the answer is going to come from artists. Because if our brains can't deal with the problem, maybe our hearts can.
If you haven't seen these, take a look: