The Right Hands
February 13, 2003
Throughout the Iraq debate, Ive been struck
by one persistent euphemism: weapons of mass destruction. Why
not just call them weapons of mass murder?
The phrase used to
refer to nuclear weapons, but has been broadened to include others that
also kill indiscriminately. Since no state wants to admit that it is
prepared to kill lots of innocent people, which is what modern warfare
entails, our rulers prefer evasive words and pretend that the problem is to
keep these dreadful weapons out of the wrong hands.
This implies that
their own hands are the right hands the hands God
would entrust such weapons to, if it were up to him.
The nuclear age began
when Albert Einstein urged Franklin Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb,
using the discoveries of modern physics to create a device that could kill
large populations with a single blast. Otherwise the Germans might do it
first. Roosevelt loved the idea and commissioned the Manhattan Project.
He died, and Germany surrendered, just before the bomb was ready. So, in
August 1945, it was used on Japan.
Only a few years
later Stalin had his own nukes. His were definitely the wrong
hands by then, and we entered a new age of terror. Soon England and
France had the bomb too, but since they were U.S. allies theirs were
the right hands. Only good, advanced, democratic countries
should possess weapons of mass murder that was more or less the
It was unfortunate
that the weapons of mass murder should have fallen into the hands of a
murderer, but at least few other countries had the means to produce them
a fact George Orwell meditated on in his essay You and the
Atom Bomb in October 1945. Orwell was relieved that the bomb
was technically difficult and fantastically expensive to
make, but he also thought that its possession by only a few states would
mean a new age of centralized power and a new form of general slavery,
with cold war between the nuke-holding states. He
developed this idea in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; we
can now see that he was basically correct.
The United States and
the Soviet Union continued making bigger and bigger bombs, while trying
to prevent smaller states from making them at all; but eventually China
and other states began acquiring them, until a new nightmare emerged: the
possibility of the privatized nuke, a smaller nuclear device
that might be useful to terrorists out of any states control.
Well, here we are! The
brainy Einstein and the cunning Roosevelt never foresaw this. Because the
first atom bomb required a huge and costly project, they assumed it would
always be so. The first computers were big, bulky, and expensive too, and
now everybody has one on his desk. There is no question of keeping them in
the right hands. If not atom bombs, then surely other
frightful weapons will soon become widely available.
The atom bomb may
have seemed like a great idea at the time, but it wasnt long before
Einstein himself was having second thoughts. Was victory over the Axis
really worth the price? The really scary part is that the full price may yet
to be paid.
As long as you have a
monopoly of power, however terrible, its easy to feel that power is
in the right hands. But when you lose that monopoly, you may start
thinking seriously about the nature of power itself. And by then it may be
Today, as the United
States is obsessed with disarming Iraq, North Korea has nuclear weapons
and is capable of hitting our West Coast with a missile. Thank you,
Einstein and Roosevelt. You you two Einsteins, so to speak
made history, a lot more history than you realized. You released a genie
that gave you your wish, but we are having trouble preventing him from
granting others their wishes too.
That wish, in plain
terms, is the capacity for mass murder. In todays world, its
hard to reach agreement on whose hands are the right hands. More and
more countries and private men feel entitled to the power
to kill countless people. Those who already have that power wont
renounce it, but they feel entitled to decide who else may get it.
Nobody should have
gotten it in the first place. It was sheer hubris for America to believe
that its hands were the right hands.