Thursday, August 28, 2008

State of Denial

State of Denial

By Robert C. Koehler

August 28, 2008, Common Wonders

Talk about naive. The Union of Concerned Scientists

apparently thought the Democratic and Republican national

conventions would be appropriate events at which to bring up

the awkwardly substantive topic of U.S. nuclear weapons

stockpiles (6,000 or so) and policy (insane).

So, as part of a larger campaign of informative ads in the

two convention cities, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, they

rented billboard space at the two airports and greeted

travelers with ads depicting an aerial view of that city,

with one of those ground zero bull's-eyes superimposed on the

downtown area, and the words: "When only one nuclear bomb

could destroy a city like ( Minneapolis , Denver ) . . . We

don't need 6,000." Below the picture, the party's

presidential nominee - one per city - was urged "to get

serious about reducing the nuclear threat."

Well, OK. Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear what

happened next: In Minneapolis , some people found the ad

"scary," which it was supposed to be, and "anti-McCain,"

which it wasn't, but airports are the sovereign turf of

Corporate America , which has quite a few values higher than

free speech. Chief among them, I think, is "happy, happy."

And Northwest Airlines, the official airline of the

Republican National Convention, which also controls the

advertising space in Concourse G of the Minneapolis-St. Paul

International Airport, found the ad to be in clear violation

of this value. So it requested Clear Channel Outdoor, a

branch of the media conglomerate that originally sold the

billboard space to Union of Concerned Scientists, to remove the ad.

Clear Channel, best known for homogenizing the nation's

airwaves (it owns more than 1,200 radio stations, and pushes

a lineup of right-wing talk show hosts), did Northwest one

better. It yanked the ad in Minneapolis , then preemptively

yanked it again in Denver , where no one had complained.

Phew - threat averted! Let the conventions proceed with all

due hoopla and empty intrigue.

"By maintaining thousands of highly accurate nuclear weapons

on alert, the United States perpetuates the only threat that

could destroy it as a functioning society: a large-scale

attack by Russia launched either without authorization, by

accident, or by mistake because of a false warning of an

incoming U.S. attack."

So UCS points out, in a statement on its Web site called

"Toward True Security." America 's security establishment

remains calcified in Cold War paranoia and, incredibly, hair-

trigger nuclear alert - and no one talks about it. What

threat do we really face? By any rational assessment, the

greatest danger to our survival is from nuclear weapons

themselves. But we don't have the mechanism for such a

discussion, at least not in the common spheres of national

life: politics and popular culture. We continue to maintain

and upgrade our nuclear arsenal and national life simply

moves on around it. Yet:

"By giving nuclear weapons so large and visible a role in

U.S. policy," the UCS statement goes on, ". . . the United

States has increased the incentive for other nations to

acquire nuclear weapons, and reduced the political costs to

them of doing so."

Nuclear technology is more accessible than ever, and more and

more countries feel the need to join "the club," fueling the

arrival of what many observers consider a second nuclear age

- far more "egalitarian" than the first. At least 40 non-

nuclear states currently possess large quantities of highly

enriched uranium, and the risk of terrorists possessing

"suitcase nukes" is greater than ever. The Bulletin of the

Atomic Scientists, which has been monitoring the state of

global nuclear risk since 1947, recently reset its doomsday

clock to five minutes to midnight.

No, this is not an easy discussion to have, but what is the

cost of not having it? What is the cost of remaining in a

state of suppressed disquiet, fearing some vague "threat

level orange" and watching increasingly bizarre security

measures - especially at the airport - tighten around us?

What is the cost of not making a nuke-free world a political

priority in the United States ?

"By contributing to a climate in which possessing nuclear

weapons is legitimate," the statement continues, "the United

States has also undermined the ability of the international

community to prevent more states from acquiring them. . . .

The United States can, and should, take the lead in promoting

an effort to clear the path to a world free of nuclear weapons."

Like I say, what was the Union of Concerned Scientists

thinking - trying to put this matter on the agenda of

America's major political parties as they meet to choose new

leaders and determine our national direction?

"Eventually we want to live in a world free of nuclear

weapons," UCS spokesman Aaron Huertas told me. But here's the

thing. As Clear Channel and Northwest Airlines understood, we

can live in that world right now just by taking that

unpleasant ad down - no politics in the airport, please - and

maintaining a state of impenetrable denial.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

[Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist,

is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally

syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at]

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