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The dead, and the living remembering them, have been turned into patriotic symbols fueling a war without end.

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The Banality of Nuclear Evil

by Ana Simo

MARCH 13, 2002. Most New Yorkers are not scrambling out on their roofs to look at the twin shafts of light now gracing the Lower Manhattan night sky. The bluish shafts of light, a memorial to the almost 3,000 people killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center, may play well in Peoria or Tokyo, but many in their vicinity can't wait for them to be turned off.

New Yorkers want their city back. Their scant attention to the public 9/11 commemorations, in spite of the predictable media barrage, is a sign of civic health. Of things finally having gone back to normal. This most pragmatic, impatient of cities chafes at its assigned role in a national morality play scripted in Washington.

For the first time in memory, otherwise liberal New Yorkers are rooting for the famously greedy local real estate interests, hoping they'll save the city from a maudlin, tourist-infested, Soviet-style monument to the WTC fallen, a stone's throw from Alexander Hamilton's suitably modest tomb. The possibility of a "tasteful" Soho-style monument — like the Batcaveish shafts of light — is not getting any better reviews.

There was a toxic aspect to Monday's mid-year ceremonies in New York and Washington that did not escape many New Yorkers, especially those who had to learn to live with the sights and smells of the Ground Zero graveyard. The dead, and the living remembering them, have been turned into patriotic symbols fueling a war without end, without boundaries, and, if nuclear weapons are rendered as banal as the Pentagon now wishes, also without bounds.

Real people died because the attackers saw the Trade Center only as a symbol of American power, and not also as two gigantically ugly architectural clumps where tiny human beings toiled for a living. Washington and a relentlessly patriotic media quickly appropriated the symbolism, sugar-coated it with a big dose of all-American sentimentality and individualism (witness the well-meaning bios of each of the WTC dead published by The New York Times), and turned it against the attackers — past, present, and future, real or imagined.

As Pearl Harbor begat Hiroshima and Nagasaki (some 200,000 human beings pulverized or otherwise snuffed), the 9/11 dead might beget death in an even more horrific and global scale — this time, not just abroad, but also right here, in this country, even in this city.

The escalation won't come from terrorists, who may or may not explode a "dirty" bomb in Grand Central Station that will contaminate Manhattan for decades, but from the U.S., which is considering the unthinkable: to use nuclear weapons to actually fight wars, and not as a deterrent. And to use them against both nuclear and nonnuclear countries. In other words, to smash the taboo against using nuclear weapons that has kept Armageddon at bay since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The blueprint for disaster is the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, a secret, 56-page report leaked last weekend to The Los Angeles Times that recommends drastic changes both in the purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the circumstances in which it would be used.

The Pentagon wants to develop new, smaller nuclear weapons that it can actually use, not just threaten to use. Nuclear weapons, it says, "could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapons facilities)" or to respond to what it vaguely describes as "surprising military developments," a chillingly open-ended phrase.

Nuclear weapons would not be anymore a category onto themselves, but part of a conventional-nuclear weapons continuum, a panoply of arms at the disposal of the U.S. President.

In plain language, this means bringing down the firewall now separating conventional weapons from nuclear weapons, and banalizing nuclear weapons, by making them smaller — though not less lethal — more flexible, easier and more tempting to use.

It also means dumping the current U.S. nuclear doctrine, first articulated by Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles on January 12, 1954, that sees nuclear weapons as a "deterrent of massive retaliatory power" against nuclear attack, to be used only as a last resort.

For decades, until the demise of the Soviet Union, the world's security was assured by the "balance of terror" between the then two superpowers, the knowledge that whoever launched a nuclear attack first would be destroyed in turn. The old "assured mutual destruction" has now been replaced in the Pentagon's thinking with "assured unilateral destruction" of any country the United States sees as threatening its security, not just with nuclear weapons, but also with any other type of weapons of mass destruction or "surprising military developments."

The moment the U.S. begins developing, and testing, this new, Strangelovian array of so-called "boutique" nuclear weapons, ending the underground testing moratorium in place since 1992, all bets will be off worldwide on nuclear disarmament and anti-proliferation. In fact, the very moment the Pentagon's proposals become policy, a virulent global arms race will begin. Not just a two or, at the most, five-way one, as during the increasingly quaint Cold War, but a 10, 12, 15-way nuclear arms race, with many of today's conventional weapon-hungry developing countries aspiring to prestigious nuclear-tipped bunker-busters.

The Administration's specious song and dance of the last few days, denying that the Pentagon report says what it says and means what it says, only adds to the uncertainty. There's a tectonic policy shift in the works that could end life on earth. Is it a done deal? With a lame Congress, a stratospheric approval rate, and a sense that God put him on earth to protect America against her enemies, Bush may well have already tilted the Pentagon way.

Not to worry. The blue shafts of light of the World Trade Center memorial will still be visible in another galaxy ten million years from now to tell the story of the Pax Americana gone awry, even if no humans are left. New York may still have the last laugh.

Related links:

For the Natural Resources Defense Council's "Faking Nuclear Restraint: The Bush Administration's Secret Plan For Strengthening U.S. Nuclear Forces."

For Secret Plan Outlines The Unthinkable, a lucid overview of the Nuclear Policy Review by defense analyst William M. Arkin, who broke the story in his March 10, 2002 L. A. Times column.

For A Change in U.S. Nuclear Policy, an analysis by Joseph Cirincione and Jon Wolfsthal, of the Carnegie Endowment for International News.

For Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century, a report by Stephen M. Younger, Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, echoed in the Pentagon's Nuclear Policy Review (which, not coincidentally, Mr. Younger helped write).

For Complete Coverage of U.S. politics

For Complete Coverage of 9/11 and Aftermath

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Bush Plus
U.S. politics and the Bush administrationAll about George W. Bush, Dems, Greens, GOPs, and the morass of U.S. politics.
9/11 and Aftermath
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and aftermath. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

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