Nuclear weapons: when our national security makes us insecure

“Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details. . . . almost everyone seems to feel adequately informed by reading one book about nuclear war.”
— Paul Brians

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — Fear of nuclear war isn’t the only reason that we avoid the subject. Since the end of the Cold War, most of us think the threat has all but evaporated. If tensions between the United States and Russia came to a head again, we always have deterrence. Of course, concern about nuclear terrorism is on the rise, but it’s left in the dust by the economy.

Meanwhile, many of us who derive scant solace from deterrence and would just like the world to be free of the cursed devices have noticed that President Obama seems to have a soft spot in his heart for disarmament. Finally, we can take a deep breath and relax. Right? Uh, no.

The president’s watered-down approach to other reform aside, “while progressive peace and security advocates clearly have an ally in President Obama. . . there is much work to be done with the Presidential advisors, Members of Congress, and (the target of the recommendations in this report) the American public, to ensure that this vision becomes a reality.”

Wait — more disarmament recommendations? Haven’t they been done to a fare-thee-well (no disrespect intended) by assemblages as august as Global Zero and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament? These, however, aren’t recommendations for disarmament, per se, but for Talking about Nuclear Weapons with the Persuadable Middle (the title of the report quoted above).

Generated by an organization called U.S. in the World (USITW) last year, they’re “based on the analysis of the three research projects. . . and on other research projects undertaken on behalf of USITW” to facilitate communication with what might be called political independents. Among its recommendations:

Peace and security advocates should. . . “re-frame” the issue [of nuclear weapons] to help people see that it is the existence of the weapons themselves — not who has them — that poses the primary threat to global and national security. The fact that nuclear weapons are a source of risk — not the fact that they are morally wrong — should be presented as the underlying reason why the issue of nuclear weapons matters. [Emphasis added.]

Actually, by USITW’s reckoning, the risk needs to be placed on “the weapons themselves and not primarily with who has them. [Otherwise] there is no real case to be made for the U.S. addressing our own nuclear arsenal since most Americans view the U.S. to be a good and decent country.” In fact, “For many people, the very destructiveness of these weapons is the reason for having them (for deterrence purposes).”

Meanwhile, the phrase from the report that reads “not the fact that they are morally wrong” offers an opening to insert another personal-favorite quote:

“I just think that in the nuclear world, the true enemy can’t be destroyed. … In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”
— Denzel Washington in “Crimson Tide”

Bear in mind, USITW points out, “The Risk Reduction Frame is different from the Safety Frame. A Risk Reduction Frame points to a process by which we can enhance security.” Whereas, “A Safety Frame. . . often used. . . by those who favor maintaining or enhancing our nuclear arsenal. . . points to security under threat and suggests. . . we are either safe or unsafe [Black or white, no gray — RW] which can lead people to want to hold onto our ‘strongest/best’ weapons.”

Another hazard to skirt when communicating with PMs (persuadable middles): “. . . advocates must. . . understand the public’s perception of peace and security advocates and their agendas (pushing a particular ideology, promoting pacifism, etc.) and the role that validators and outside messengers can play.” In other words, lacking credibility with PMs, peaceniks need to fade into the background and cede the stage to “validators and outside messengers” such as generals, current and retired, who have seen the light about nuclear weapons.

The final point we’ll highlight: “When introducing the Risk Reduction Frame, advocates should be focused on the risk posed by nuclear weapons — not just the risk of vulnerable fissile materials (i.e., nuclear terrorism).” It seems that when using “nuclear terrorism as our starting point. … the public starts seeing the entire world as a scary place, full of enemies whose behavior cannot be modified or controlled in any way except through crushing them” with the aforementioned “strongest/best” weapons.

Nothing could be more counterintuitive to disarmament advocates. They instinctively invoke nuclear terrorism to make the case for disarmament. It’s tough to disagree with USITW, though, that it’s a stone better left unturned.

However valuable, USITW’s recommendations fall short of enlightening the public to some of nuclear weapons’ underlying issues. For example, helping people understand that nuclear war is but war write large. When states retain conventional weapons capable of mass extermination, disarmament is but a Pyrrhic victory.

Ultimately we need to face our shadow selves and stop demonizing other states or races. Author Paul Levy quotes Carl Jung, who wrote of “the overweening pretensions of the human shadow, which we so gladly project on our fellow man in order to visit our own sins upon him with apparent justification.” Levy adds: “Projecting our own evil outside of ourselves seemingly relieves us of the burden of having to deal with the evil within us. And yet [it’s] the primal act which generates the very ‘evil’ that we are attempting to avoid in the first place.”

Obviously, even if universal health care came to pass, the public isn’t going to flock to psychotherapy in search of its shadow self. What’s more important is that we turn our attention to raising children disinclined to project their darker impulses unto others. As psychohistorian Jerrold Atlas phrases it, we’ve been “too slowly improving childrearing and too fast evolving destructive technology” such as nuclear weapons.

Simply put, children must be kept safe from violence and sexual abuse. As the noted Swiss psychotherapist and author Alice Miller wrote: “The total neglect or trivialization of the childhood factor operative in the context of violence. . . sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence.” In other words — surprise, surprise — abusing a child predisposes him or her toward violence and, arguably, an inclination to advocate or support violent solutions to international conflict.

To decrease violence against children in recent years, laws banning corporal punishment and programs that teach high-school students childrearing and provide children with empathy training have been instituted, along with community centers to teach parenting skills. The more they’re implemented, the more children will grow up unmarked by abuse. In short order, fewer individuals in positions of authority will find that strategies putting enormous numbers of individuals in harm’s way make sense.

In the interim, while USITW is not posting trail markers to world peace, we should be grateful that it’s presenting us with “a public education campaign that pursues short-term policy gains while advancing the long-term objective of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” If disarmament advocates tweak their “messaging” to accord with USITW’s recommendations, they might find that they could get used to their newfound success communicating with the public.

First posted at the Faster Times.