The return of nuclear nightmares

 Image: National Nuclear Security Administration/Wikimedia Commons

The first age of nuclear nightmares came in the 1950s and 1960s. They chiefly afflicted the young. Their parents had experienced nuclear realities by way of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was part of a war, and ended it. It was normalized and rational, though in a basically ungraspable way.

Their kids grew up in a peaceful world haunted by nuclear terrors. Their teachers taught them to "duck and cover" beneath their desks if they saw the nuclear flash. They had nightmares (and waking ones) of it. The only moment of apparent imminence came during the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis. It all receded gradually, via détente, a non-proliferation treaty and the Cold War's demise.

Now it's back. The minds of the young (in particular) are haunted by nuclear annihilation. If, at this moment, as you're reading, you saw a nuclear flash illuminate the sky, you'd be shattered but not surprised. It's there again as imminent, due largely, but not solely, to Trump. Why not solely? Because generations of earlier leaders failed to act to eliminate those weapons and instead built dazzling models of international relations based on them. Trump has arrived, in a way, to demonstrate the true meaning of their bullshit.

Why especially among youth? They have a future but no (adult) past, and fear they won't live to see it. The rest of us have already had lives we steered ourselves. "Do you think God can exist in a world with nuclear weapons?" asked a millennial -- not hysterically, matter-of-factly. They are a quirky demographic.

Along with daily, waking horrors, come new ways to think about politics. I had a friend, the late Art Pape, who left university in his second year, in 1962, to become Canada's first full time worker for nuclear disarmament. It seemed daring then. Later that image morphed into elderly white people in Birkenstocks demonstrating outside nuclear facilities and looking like Jeremy Corbyn.

Now, remarkably, Corbyn is young again! In a U.K. parliamentary debate on renewing the Trident missile system, he was pilloried by his political and media peers for saying, "I do not believe the threat of mass murder is a legitimate way to go about dealing with international relations."

Another millennial I know was inspired, almost transported, by those words. Corbyn has been saying them in some form for half a century. The respectable voices in politics and public discourse simply snicker at his phrasing. But when the young hear it, in sober, adult forums, it gives them hope: they aren't alone.

In fact, what Corbyn says is entirely sensible, it's pure reason, and when the nuclear flash happens, and the skin is dripping off the faces of vast urban populations, everyone will suddenly get it. The sages of Mutual Assured Destruction will smack their own foreheads and say, "How did we miss that?"

Other signs of anti-nuke renewal? Last summer, almost two-thirds of UN members passed a non-binding ban on nuclear weapons. Did you know there was no such thing? The nuclear non-proliferation treaty way back in 1968 tried to prevent new nukers but left original possessors (the Security Council five plus Israel, with India and Pakistan since) untouched.

There's a hilarious clause by which they're supposed to work "in good faith" to eliminate their arsenals. The new ban is meant to "stigmatize" nuclear weapons, a weird idea. Rape and cannibalism don't need stigmatization (or far less). Chemical and biological weapons and anti-personnel mines are already illegal. The Nobel Peace Prize this year went to the nuke-banning campaign.

The U.S., U.K. and France chorused, "We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party," since a ban "is incompatible with...nuclear deterrence" which makes us so secure. They sounded petulant, like they'd taken Trump lessons.

Tell it to the young, watching through the terrifying prism of Trump. Maybe the next step in nuclear deterrence should be a Trump non-proliferation treaty.

Where does Canada stand? Nowhere. Didn't attend UN sessions or support the ban. Certainly didn't want to irk the U.S. in the midst of our brilliant, sunny effort to cling to NAFTA.

Also: Trudeau's government, for obscure reasons, wants desperately to win a 2019 seat on the Security Council. There it could be a "moderating" voice for causes like global peace. So it declines to speak out on the defining peace issue of the age. You figure it out.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration/Wikimedia Commons

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