90 Seconds

I begin with a rather disquieting item posted on Wikipedia:

Only the President can direct the use of nuclear weapons, including the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). While the President does have unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to order that nuclear weapons be used for any reason at any time, the actual procedures and technical systems in place for authorizing the execution of a launch order requires a secondary confirmation under a two-man rule, as the President’s order is subject to secondary confirmation by the Secretary of Defense. If the Secretary of Defense does not concur, then the President may in his sole discretion fire the Secretary. The Secretary of Defense has legal authority to approve the order, but cannot veto it.

What this means, as I understand it, is that the president has sole power to determine when and where to use nuclear weapons, since the Secretary of Defense cannot veto his decision to use the weapons. — which have heretofore been deterrents to war but which could possibly become the first strike in the next war. That is to say, in the event of an “emergency” the president can initiate the use of nuclear weapons with only a 90 second pause for reflection. It is clear that the president of the united states has immense power to initiate the use of nuclear weapons and thus to start a Third World War — which will almost certainly be the last war humans ever fight.  And given what we know about the character of the president-elect, there is much to consider. The following article in a recent Huffington Post makes the issue crystal clear:

The president of the United States has complete and unilateral control over 1,900 active nuclear weapons. Due to advances in modern technology, the most common protocols for authorizing American nuclear weapons allow for as little as 90 seconds of reflection by the one person alive with the power to use them. How on Earth are any of us safe, how are our loved ones safe, when that person is considered entirely unqualified by some of the most respected members of his own party, and has been assessed by hundreds if not thousands of psychological professionals as having incurable Narcissistic Personality and Sociopathic Personality Disorders?

The rhetorical question at the end of this quote should awaken any of those among us who wonder what might possibly happen if the current president-elect becomes our next president. The question is what, if anything, can be done? Roger Wolfson, in the above article, explains that the electoral college can still vote to elect Hillary Clinton president and he provides a link to a petition that readers might do well to consider signing as a way to assure that Donald Trump never gets his finger on the button to start a Third World War. Granted, this is a worst-case-scenario, but in light of this man’s erratic behavior and narcissistic personality, it is certainly not beyond the scope of possibility. I submit this for your thoughtful consideration as a possible course of action.

Why It’s Close

To many observers, this political race for president of the United States should be about over. It shouldn’t even be close. On the one hand, we have a candidate who has managed to offend everyone from the disabled to the mother of a baby who had the audacity to cry at one of his rallies. On the other, we have a trained lawyer, a seasoned veteran who has been involved in international affairs at the highest levels, advised a sitting president, and was married to another. As I say, it shouldn’t even be close.

But, depending on what polls you read and when they were taken, the race is alarmingly close — “alarming” because if the former candidate (who shall remain nameless) should win it would be a disaster for this country given his twisted sense of reality together with his proclivity for alienating practically everyone and his inability to take criticism or advice from anyone who disagrees with him. The thought of this man (who shall remain nameless) with the nuclear codes is enough to wake the dead and cause them to dig deeper graves. This is the man, after all, who repeatedly asked, during a State Department briefing, why, if we have them, we could not use nuclear weapons. As has been said, America’s choice is between sanity and insanity.

But the race is closer than it should be and the obvious question is why. The answer seems to be that many people do not like Hillary Clinton. She is a strong woman with definite opinions and a hard exterior. However, I cannot recall any political candidate in my lifetime who has had to withstand the personal attacks and relentless —  and in many cases unwarranted — scrutiny that this woman has and she has handled it with remarkable equanimity. But, you see, she is a WOMAN. And there is the rub, it would seem.  We managed to elect a black man to the presidency and we now sit on the threshold of electing a woman– both “firsts” for a nation not known for doing the right thing of late.  And yet it appears we are afraid to take that step. Why is that?

Is it possibly because the candidate whose name will not be mentioned has scared the pants off a great many people in this country and created a fictional opponent whom he has pilloried on every possible occasion, hurling every ugly calumny at her?  Most of us under the circumstances would have wandered off to the local Home For The Bewildered babbling incoherently. Clearly, his mindless minions have bought into this diatribe. They have bought into it because (a) there are a great many people in this country who are sick and tired of “politics as usual”; they want to elect “someone else,” i.e., someone from outside the political mainstream. Hillary Clinton is decidedly mainstream. And (b) because they do not want a woman to hold that office, especially the woman who has been held up to them as the embodiment of all they hate and fear. As one of this man’s followers said in a recent interview, following a rally, regarding women generally : “No. A female has more hormones. She could start a war or anything. Hot flashes … BOOM!” By depicting this woman as the bearer of all of the vices any one person could possibly bear and holding that image before his mindless minions this candidate (who shall not be named) has managed to create the belief in the hearts of many that they must reject his opponent because she is weak and thoroughly evil while he is the only one who can save this country from perdition. And because those minions are mindless — and more numerous than anyone thought in his or her wildest nightmares — they have bought into it; as a result the race is so much closer than it should be.

Thus, those of us who see things as they are — and not as they are painted for us by a twisted mind — worry that this race will go to the wrong person and we shall have to deal with the consequences, consequences that are worrisome indeed, because it really is a choice between sanity and insanity and it shouldn’t even be close.

Playing With Fire

In the Wikipedia discussion of nuclear weapons, we are told that “A thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg) can produce an explosive force comparable to the detonation of more than 1.2 million tons (1.1 million tonnes) of TNT. Thus, even a small nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation.” We are also told that there are approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons worldwide.

While you surely know about the concerns world-wide over the leak of nuclear waste from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan not long ago, you may not have read about the revelation that a near-calamity was avoided when, some years back, a plane carrying two nuclear bombs had engine trouble and had to release its bombs in North Carolina where they fell harmlessly to the ground. Apparently there are three “triggers” that must be tripped before the bomb will ignite but they discovered that two of the three triggers in one of the bombs had tripped leaving only the third one as a last-ditch safety measure against certain calamity. As the Guardian recently reported:

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Goethe's version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Goethe’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

You may also have read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that focuses attention on the determination of one man to create another in his image: Jacques Ellul called it the “technological imperative.” If we can do it we should do it.” This is the reverse of David Hume’s formula for ethical action: “ought implies can.”  If a person cannot do something we cannot say he or she should have done it — save a child’s life if they cannot swim, for example. The technological imperative reverses this formula and tells us that “can implies ought.” If we can do it, we should do it. Ethical questions are simply not raised. Thus is born the determination to create another human being, as Shelly suggests. The genie comes out of the bottle, the sorcerer’s apprentice messes with things he doesn’t fully understand and creates a broom to do his work that goes completely out of control. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. In a word, we have gone so far down the path toward control of nature and the determination to demonstrate our own technical ingenuity that we are now unable to put the genie back into the bottle. We are very good at asking the question “how?” but we completely ignore the basic question, “why?”

I have always wondered if the story in the Bible about the Garden of Eden was a parable for our times. The earth as we have come to know it is the Garden in all its glory. But we have eaten of the apple of knowledge (technical knowledge) and are about to destroy the beauty around us and ourselves in the process. We will not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, we will annihilate ourselves in the process. It’s a sobering thought and one that is hard to dodge when we read about nuclear accidents and near-misses like the case of the nuclear weapon that nearly went off in North Carolina not long ago and which would have caused untold human and animal life. And to what end, we might ask? But that is a question that is never asked by the technical experts. They only ask: can we do it?

State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature to be a condition we were all in before the rise of political states. He described it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The basic emotion shared by all in the state of nature is fear. The purpose of political states is to keep us all in awe of the Sovereign and therefore at peace with one another. While other political theorists, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau borrowed the notion of a primitive state of humans prior to the formation of political states, none imagined the condition to be quite as unsettling as Hobbes did. For the most part, Hobbes’ notion was dismissed out of hand.

But what about the relationship among nation-states themselves? Might it not be possible to make a case that nations are in a state of nature such as Hobbes describes with respect to one another, though not quite so bleak? Just consider the current disposition of nuclear weapons among the nations and think what their possession means to the various nations that possess them — and especially to those who do not possess them. Also, consider the fact that concern over the possibility that bellicose nations such as Iran seem on the brink of having such weapons has struck fear in the rest of the world — a fear that has driven other nations to express outrage.

But, when you think about it, it may well be that the possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers is what keeps nations from one another’s throat. At least, that is a possibility, and our hope. But there is also the possibility that as nuclear weapons proliferate the likelihood that a nuclear exchange will take place increases. There are currently eight nations (possibly nine) with nuclear weapons in their possession — the United States leading the pack with 10,300 such weapons at last count (!). It is ironic that the nations that have yelled loudest at the thought that Iran might be in possession of nuclear weapons control the majority of such weapons worldwide. Ignoring the fact that this is the height of hypocrisy, concern is legitimate when a nation that has openly expressed its antipathy toward the rest of the world seems about to possess nuclear weapons.

The defense that Iran, or any other country, is simply developing nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes is irrelevant, since 4 out of 6 countries with nuclear power capacity also have nuclear weapons. One seems to lead to the other. Another way of looking at this is to note that the six countries with the most nuclear power plants control 97% of all nuclear weapons worldwide. But whether or not the fact that a country has nuclear power leads invariably to the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is correct in wanting to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and resist the attempts by any more countries to get them.

The mere possession of nuclear weapons in large numbers like those in the U.S. is morally indefensible. This is especially true when not long ago an American President was reportedly contemplating the use of “low yield” nuclear weapons as a first strike option in the Iraq war [Hint: Not the sitting President; his predecessor.]. It has generally been assumed that such weapons would only be regarded as deterrents to war, or at worst retaliatory, never as the first option in a war. The mere suggestion is marginally insane, as indeed is the buildup of such weaponry itself.

In any event, it is reasonable to say that nations in our nuclear age exist in a state of nature in relation to one another. Thus, one might well follow Hobbes in suggesting that what the world needs is a Sovereign, a world government with punitive powers to keep the nations at bay. If any single nation ever seriously considers the use of such weapons as a first-strike option, the case for such a world government is all the stronger. Hobbes insisted that bellicose individuals needed a Sovereign they would fear more than they feared one another.  As things now stand, the obvious choice to play this role is the United Nations, but at present, the United Nations is a toothless tiger. If we are to follow Hobbes’ lead, the tiger must be armed and fearsome and probably relocated in a neutral country.  Perhaps this is what the world needs to get along in a nuclear age.