I responded to a Sierra Club call once, back during Zell Miller’s governorship, to gather at the capital to raise awareness about some environmental issue, I forget what. I’ve often gone to demonstrations to put my body there, to be counted and this was one of those, a general support without specific knowledge of the issue. I was getting briefed by one of the Sierra Club folks when someone announced, “We’re being invited in to meet with the governor.” This was the pre-bonkers Zell Miller. In fact he had a bit of a progressive reputation. Still, no one expected this and the six or seven of us climbed the stairs, me trying desperately to think of something I could say to him.
Zell assumed we were all Sierra Club members (I wasn’t) and after introductions he asked us to go around and say what we’d do if we were governor. I had a vague idea about how governors should resist the corporations that get them bidding against each other to offer the least environmental regulations, the lowest wages, the biggest tax-breaks but I didn’t feel confident enough to articulate this. When it came my turn I said I’d close down the nuclear plants, especially the Georgia Tech training reactor right in downtown Atlanta. He looked surprised and asked the others if they agreed. It was unanimous and he didn’t look pleased. He then changed the subject to the Sierra Club magazine. Apparently it offered travel tours to enchanting places as part of its environmental education work and he was aware of this, or one of his aids quickly scanned the mag for something he could talk about. He tried to leave the impression that he was a regular reader and sympathetic. All very friendly to this small group of tongue-tied environmentalists. Later, when he was appointed senator to replace the late Paul Coverdell, he wouldn’t even meet with a group of citizens who wanted to talk to him about the Iraq war, having them arrested when they wouldn’t leave his office. We all know about his zany behavior during the Republican convention as a Democrat for Bush.
So, I had a dream the other night that I was similarly invited to tell Obama what I’d do if president. I similarly panicked as my moment approached, searching desperately for something meaningful to say. And it occurred to me. I’ve been annoyed at our free press folks who seem never to think to ask Obama why he continues, despite the collapse of the cold war justification, to keep nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert. Some experts are of the opinion that it is actually more dangerous today than during the height of the cold war due to the deterioration and lack of maintenance of Russian technology. Could this axe hanging over our heads be there simply so that politicians can avoid exposing themselves to charges of insufficient machismo? They’re willing to risk our civilization, possibly life on earth, for short-term political advantage? Why not? They’ve been doing it since 1945. Why should I be surprised they’re still doing it? In a sane society it would be the opposite: politicians would be asking the question of anyone foolish enough to suggest such a situation and the people would be demanding answers and the politician who didn’t respond would have a very short career.
Just to rehearse the stakes: even a small nuclear exchange could create nuclear winter, clouds of radioactive debris blocking the sun for months, possibly years, ruining every food crop in its terrible cold shadow. As the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) have said, the survivors would envy those killed outright. The likelihood of an exchange is certainly higher when warheads are kept on a launch-on-warning status, subject to erroneous data, faulty equipment and human error magnified by the short timeframe allowed for decision – around fifteen minutes. Silos with huge megatonnage face a use ’em or lose ’em scenario. Submarines with enough missiles to destroy every major city on the planet lurk in dark waters awaiting orders to launch Armageddon as their last act of patriotic loyalty – and madness.