by Joe Scarry
We had a long car ride last week, and that gave us the opportunity for a long conversation. One of the things we talked about was the problem of nuclear weapons.
One of my sons said, “The thing is, they’re just too horrible to contemplate, so it just has to be that they will never be actually be used.”
And that led me to think, “That’s right, the thing we really don’t want to do is to confront what nuclear weapons really do.”
A few years ago we did a commemoration of Hiroshima in Chicago, and at that time I re-read the book Hiroshima by John Hersey, together with some other materials.
Each time one reads Hiroshima, one has this shocked and sickening feeling of remembering reading the words before and wondering how one could have possibly forgotten them. In the moment it feels like they should be seared into our memories.
Around that time I studied a book of images created by survivors of Hiroshima. I thought at that time, “It’s not enough to remember this just once a year; it’s not enough that we make a single book — Hiroshima — required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this.”
There is a somewhat better understanding of this in Japan. People who have survived the atomic bombing and now carry the witness of that event in their bodies are distinguished by a special term: hibakusha. At the same time, I wonder if even there it is possible to avoid the natural urge to put the reality of nuclear war out of view.
What would it take to motivate us to do what we hate to do — to confront the reality of nuclear war?
And how could we do it without falling prey to abstraction?
Is even a word like “danger” too abstract? (Are we talking about “risk”? About “odds”? Or about burned and destroyed bodies?”
When will we stop taking about it like a game . . . and start seeing the fire and blast?
I don’t think Alanna and I ever talked about what it must be like to be trying to escape a shower of sparks and hot ash. But she seemed to know that the sparks and hot ash are too important a part of the picture to be left out.
(See The Children Are Waiting )
We have had a window of opportunity — nearly 70 years in which the constitution of Japan has explicitly renounced war, pointing the way for the rest of us. What have we imaginedwe were supposed to do?
Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon – a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War – deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.