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Whose Finger? On What Button?

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Through a combination of denial, lack of empathy, fear-mongering, security jargon and political dysfunction, the question of what to do about nuclear weapons, which threaten all life on Earth, is one few Americans wrestle with very often. Nor do most voters consider it a top priority in their decisions at the ballot box.

In this election, however, Donald Trump’s lack of government experience, disdain for concrete policy positions and flippant manner have many questioning whether he can be trusted with this finger on the nuclear button. Trump himself has fed these concerns, as reportedly he asked, three times, during a private high-level briefing on nuclear weapons policy why a president can’t use nukes.

I don’t want Mr. Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger. Nor do I want Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or anyone else (including the leaders of the eight other nuclear weapons states) to have the power to unilaterally decide the fate of life on our planet by “pushing the nuclear button” (there’s no button or trigger, it’s a clumsy metaphor but works well enough to be widely understood).

Put aside momentarily the specter of rendering the planet a smoldering, radioactive sarcophagus where any few remaining humans would envy the dead, or the vanquishing of most other plant and animal species that had no say in their destruction. Even a “limited” nuclear war, employing the relatively small arsenals of India and Pakistan in a regional conflagration, could cause global famine on top of the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent people.

How is it acceptable or legitimate for anyone to have the power to decide whether our civilization continues, or whether other species survive? We shouldn’t trust anyone with this power. Human beings are far too fallible.

Unfortunately we have ceded too much power to alleged experts. The mumbo jumbo jargon of the Dr. Strangeloves in the Pentagon, National Nuclear Security Agency, nuclear laboratories and weapons contractors – “deterrence,” “stability,” “security” and the like, obfuscates reality and intentionally disempowers the populace, though they work for us. Our taxes pay their salaries.

Take “deterrence,” a very serious sounding and widely accepted term. What it really means is “basing your country’s security on the threat to incinerate tens or hundreds of millions of women, children and men who live in another country and who never did anything to us.” Does that sound like a good way to provide for a country’s “security?” Especially when other countries have a similar “monkey see, monkey do” (with apologies to monkeys, who aren’t so foolish) posture, and thus base their “security” on the threat of incinerating the United States?

There have been far too many close calls, detailed most recently by author Eric Schlosser in a forthcoming documentary Command and Control and his 2013 book of the same title, where mistaken readings of tense political situations or technological glitches nearly led to catastrophe.

Perhaps the scariest event occurred 33 years ago this month. On September 26, 1983, Stanislov Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces correctly (and under what must have been immense pressure) determined a report that five U.S. nuclear missiles were heading toward the Soviet Union was a false alarm, thus staving off a Soviet “launch on warning” attack on the U.S.  Appropriately, a 2014 film about Petrov is called The Man Who Saved the World.

While Petrov deserves credit for sparing humanity, we should take no comfort that this and other incidents that could have led to calamity were averted, often by luck more than anything else, especially since the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert. Compounding the problem, the U.S. plans to spend about one trillion dollars over the next 30 years on overhauling our entire nuclear weapons complex. Predictably, every other nuclear state has followed suit in announcing similar plans.

Harvard University Professor Elaine Scarry, in her 2014 book Thermonuclear Monarchy, poses a simple challenge, namely that vesting one person (in the United States, the president) with decision-making authority to launch a nuclear attack that would likely end life as we know it completely subverts our nominal democracy.

The obvious solution – let’s be democratic about this. Take the nuclear trigger away from everyone. Eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide, as the vast majority of the world’s people favor (76% worldwide, 77% in the U.S., according to a 2008 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll conducted in 21 countries). Perhaps Trump, with his unorthodox campaign, has provided an unwitting service, a wake-up call to end the illegitimate, unearned trust we give our presidents, prime ministers and potentates with respect to nuclear weapons.

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Kevin Martin is Executive Director of Peace Action, the country’s largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization with more than 200,000 supporters nationwide.

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