Are We Numb to Nukes?

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Guest List

Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, along with The Body in Pain and On Beauty and Being Just;
Hugh Gusterson, anthropologist, professor at George Mason University, and author of People of the Bomb and Nuclear Rites.

We’re thinking our way through a plausible nuclear emergency with Elaine Scarry who reminds you – we’ve got a weapons monarchy in this democracy. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall and a nuclear football still accompanies the president at all times,  nuclear missile silos still dot the great plains, and hundreds of nukes remain constantly on alert. How can we call it a democracy, the rule of the people, when there’s one man’s finger on the trigger that could destroy us all?

Other people have shown, without alluding to nuclear weapons, how odd the picture of Hobbes had gotten around the 1950s and beyond. He seemed to have been turned into a monster. And yet, if you look at the timing, that is the nuclear age, and he was made to serve that purpose. These things take many different forms, and if our structures of thermonuclear monarchy demand that we give up the Constitution, it’s not that an executive goes out and says  (except maybe Nixon), “Okay, now I’m saying let’s get rid of the Constitution.” That would be preposterous. But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution. “Oh, that was something from several centuries ago,” “Oh, that was something associated with nation-states and we’re above thinking of nation states now.”

Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”

We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.

Elaine Scarry in The American Reader

Take a look at Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s animated view of every nuclear test from 1945 to 1998 — no less terrifying because of its retro look:

 Reading List

• More of Elaine Scarry’s interview with The American Reader, and a feature on the book in Harvard Magazine;

• Hugh Gusterson’s audit on an Orientalist double standard in nuclear weapons:

The presumed contrast between the West, where leaders are disciplined by democracy, and the Third World, where they are not, does not hold up so well under examination. The governments of Britain, France, and Israel, not to mention the United States, all made their initial decisions to acquire nuclear weapons without any public debate or knowledge. Only in India was the question of whether or not to cross the nuclear threshold an election issue. Pakistan also had a period of public debate before conducting its first nuclear test… There also have been problems with U.S. command and control.

• Louis Menand’s review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, “Nukes of Hazard,” The New Yorker, and an excerpt from the book;
• The Memory Palace (audio), “Babysitting,” a radio story on Donald Hornig, babysitter to the bomb.



  • Chris Daniels

    “But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution.”
    What I generally hear about is efforts to re-interpret the Constitution and bend it, perhaps sometimes misapplying it. A subtle but important difference. So I’m not sure what Elaine Scarry is getting at, perhaps specifically the “war powers” of the President? Without some specific context, her point is lost. Who is saying we don’t need to follow the Constitution, and when have they said it?

  • Potter

    I look forward to this one. It coincides with another thought I have about the Ukraine-Russia situation in the Crimea: Ukraine gave up it’s nukes admirably. If it had not, would Putin be so brazen? I don’t think so. And is this, along with all the other messages this episode is sending, further incentive to have nukes. If it is all about power still and we are really still in the 19th and 20th century after all (as Merkel suggested), it’s very bad. We are, I think, at an important moment with regard to nukes as well as international law.

  • dmf
  • Manhattan Project


    Thank you so much for bringing this important and gut wrenching issue out into the open. It is truly one of the issues of our time, and yet the silence is deafening. I was surprised to hear Professor Gusterson push you away from using the word “madness” to describe the scientists who work with nuclear weapons. I live in New Mexico, home to two of the nation’s nuclear labs and birthplace of the bomb. I too know scientists who work at Sandia and Los Alamos, and yes, they are mad. But it is a collective kind of madness, one that has infected the entire society. They reassure themselves that these weapons will never be used, because what other choice do they have? They cannot, for even a moment, face the stark and grim possibility that they might be used…to do so would shatter their world. This is the fantasy story people tell themselves so that they can put their shoes on and go to work in the morning. The whole world is in a fugue state of madness. It is unspeakable.

    But I think in part at least this is the madness of self-interest; let us remember that these are some of the most well-paid people in our local community. To have a job at these labs is like the brass ring. They have all the best benefits, excellent pay, their children go to the best schools.

    But there are other people, myself included, who believe that there has to be a better way. We cannot save the world by threatening to destroy it. We believe that peace can be achieved through local grassroots economic development, sustainable technology, and a connection to the natural world. We toil at the edge of poverty, and move forward because we believe that there must be a better way. Friends and family are baffled that we have a moral aversion to working for the national labs. We are sleepwalking towards the abyss, Chris. Thank you for whispering to us in our nightmare-dream, trying to wake us up before it is too late.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    “But it is a collective kind of madness, one that has infected the entire society.”
    I would recommend Frederick Wiseman’s 1987 documentary *Missile* for another perspective on this mad mad mad world of nukes.
    Re: Isao Hashimoto’s animated work
    It would have been better if he had a list of US defense contractors that tallied up the revenues they got per detonation so the taxpayers could know what the insanity was costing them. Oh, and how much MIT and other research institutions got per pop.

  • Robert Burke

    I don’t see any effort here to define a path to zero. The presumption would be to “tough it out” with jaw jaw and treaties with promises and so forth. Howz that working for you?

    The only way to rid the world of nuclear weapons is to eliminate the need for fission energy. This means the replacement for fossil fuels needs to be bigger and cheaper than all the existing energy sources.

    This means that policies that hold out for windmills and other ways tp access solar energy are part of the problem.

    We are not going to achieve a bomb free world with flimsy ideas.

    There is an energy source that can do it. But if you don’t understand the whole problem, you are unlikely to see it. As a matter of fact, it is “hidden in plain sight.” It isn’t a real secret, but as Physics Nobelist and National Science Medal Winner Burton Richter wrote in Science magazine in 1994: “No matter what you say, this “best bet” continues to be ignored and starved for funds.”

    Look it up. Learn for yourselves about how to truly solve the world’s energy problem, and do away with nuclear bombs in the process.