The present imperfect


The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and legislation could expand that to include the decision to use nuclear weapons. (Image by Donkey Hotey, Creative Commons)

'When I look at the sky and think a nuclear missile could be coming right at me, I don't want to keep silent. I'd like to do something, and act together with other people.'

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Nuclear threat revives moments of fear, memories of hope, and desire to act

As I heard recently about Japanese residents on the island of Hokkaido learning at six in the morning that a North Korean missile was flying over them, I felt a lot of empathy. It was only a few weeks ago that I looked up at the sky on a Sunday afternoon with a new understanding that a North Korean ICBM can reach us here on the U.S. West Coast.

It’s not that living under a nuclear threat is new—I remember fearful times during the Cold War, especially in the 1960s. And it’s not new for North Korea to launch missiles and threaten war, only to back off when the leader gets what he wants.

But it does feel new and unsettling that the two leaders facing off—Kim Jong Un and Donald J. Trump—are both characterized as brash, belligerent, impulsive, and quick to anger. Now that their fingers are on the nuclear buttons, I realize that the sense of security and relative peace I’ve felt for decades is dissipating,

I wonder how to get a sense of security back, and as I try talking with friends about this, no one is eager to take up the subject. Maybe it’s just too grim, or maybe we feel helpless. Maybe we’d rather trust to the status quo: If North Korea hasn’t acted on its threats before, it’s not likely to do so now.

One friend who both shares my unease and also has some ideas, is advocating for legislation already introduced that would bring the decision to launch a nuclear attack under the control of Congress, as part of its power to declare war.

Right now, the U.S. President can order a nuclear attack on his own, though he is supposed to consult with two other people, first: the Pentagon’s Deputy Director of Operations, and the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

This is in spite of the fact that the U.S. Constitution assigns war-making powers to Congress in Article 1, Section 8. Many nuclear experts argue it’s time to move this ultimate war-making decision away from being a president’s personal choice and place it in line with other war-related decisions that Congress makes. I’ve been reading such articles and research available at the Ploughshares Fund website.

Another couple of friends speculate about preparing for a nuclear attack, though that topic runs aground fairly quickly. We’re almost embarrassed to remember our safety drills from years ago, when we practiced dropping to the floor of our school rooms and rolling under our desks. And we remember friends and neighbors building fallout shelters in their backyards and stocking them with water and canned goods. How laughable these steps seem, now that we understand how nuclear radiation will damage swaths of the planet and injure millions of people far beyond any country that might be attacked.

Here in Washington state, it’s actually against the law for emergency planners to prepare for the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The state legislature passed a law prohibiting such efforts back in 1984—a year of Orwellian significance. A bill has been introduced to rescind that prohibition, which came only four years after Mount St. Helens erupted. Apparently, it was more important to get ready for volcanoes, tsunamis, and The Big One, the major earthquake we’re still awaiting. And that makes sense, since we actually can prepare for surviving those events.

Our country’s military readiness should help me feel more secure. As recently as July, American intelligence sources stated in news stories that North Korea needed another three to five years to develop ICBMs able to reach Alaska and the West Coast. But with its long-range missile launch at the end of the month, our intelligence was proved wrong.

American military sources also say that we have a defense system that successfully intercepts missiles at least some of the time. In fact, successful tests are announced each time North Korea does something particularly frightening.

In moments of fear, I flash back to other occasions of both worry and relief. The first time I remember feeling fearful about nuclear attack as a child was in October 1962. I came home from school to find my parents in the kitchen, the radio blaring with serious men’s voices. My parents were up on stepladders repainting the kitchen ceiling.

They explained that Russian ships were bringing missiles to Cuba, and the U.S. was sending ships to stop them. It was a standoff; war could happen at any moment. I gazed up at the ceiling, where the bombs might break through; the new paint was a glossy, deep orange, an explosion of color in itself. And my parents were frightened.

But I also remember the hours in November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was destroyed, when citizens jubilantly tore apart the barrier so emblematic of the Cold War. And I remember TV news showing the Soviet Union breaking up, a few years later.

These memories offer hope. One lets me recall that for the fifty-five years since 1962, we’ve heard lots of threats that haven’t developed into nuclear war. The other reminds that paradigm shifts can happen, and they arrive quickly when masses of ordinary people simply don’t support the existing order any longer.

Currently, our existing order allows a single man at the top of a pyramid of political power to make a decision to push the nuclear button. That decision might be deliberate, considered and fully discussed—or it might be sudden, impulsive, and angry.

I would feel a lot more secure if we built some time and layers of control into that kind of decision. Only the United States and Russia keep nuclear weapons within minutes of readiness, according to articles on Ploughshares, while other nuclear nations ensure longer and more extensive preparation.

Most also vow not to use nuclear weapons as a first strike. Trump has just become the first American President to threaten to use them at will, as he talks about “fire and fury” and states “all options are on the table.”

The entire global framework of treaties and negotiations developed over the decades may also seem daunting. Maybe it’s prudent to not want to “tie a President’s hands,” and leave the issue “to the experts to handle.” The entire subject seems so complicated, so steeped in decades of diplomacy, so beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens, that we shrug in discouragement.

Still, when I look at the sky and think a nuclear missile could be coming right at me, I don’t want to remain silent. I’d like to do something, and I’d like to speak with other people, in case we can act together. If we keep shrugging in silent discouragement, then something other than a nuclear weapon has won the day.

One step at the moment is to urge support for two bills in Congress that would place nuclear-strike decisions within Congress’s Constitutional war-making powers. About fifty U.S. Representatives are co-sponsors of HR669, introduced by Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and nine U.S. Senators are co-sponsors of S-200, introduced in the Senate by Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Given that all of the sponsors are Democrats, and Congress is controlled by Republicans, I doubt much action will happen soon. But having even a long-term specific effort to work toward, feeling I’m doing something, adds just a bit to feeling more secure.

Last month

Visit's surprises and discoveries show why preserving Bears Ears is crucial

The sheltering cave held rock walls of ancient houses, fire-blackened sections of ceiling, a curving wall of an underground ceremonial kiva, a fireplace heaped with tiny corncobs, and chunks of broken pottery underfoot. My husband and I stood looking in silent awe.

This unexcavated early Puebloan site may be hundreds of years old, or thousands. We don’t know because no interpretive signs were posted, no guidebook was at hand, and no parks ranger or local tribal member was present to show us around. The ancient, unexcavated sites we saw that day—dozens of them—are within Bears Ears National Monument. The Secretary of the Interior is reviewing the monument’s designation, apparently with the goal of reducing the protected area. This would be an enormous loss. Read more about these sites at Bears Ears.