Beatrice Fihn Enters the Belly of the Beast by Max Obuszewski
When I saw the announcement that Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was to speak at the John Hopkins University’s Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) event on Wednesday, March 6, I was quite excited. She would be speaking at Johns Hopkins which is the #1 weapons contractor among universities in the USA. Most of this research takes place at the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, and some of it is nuclear-weapons related.
I anticipated a large turn-out to hear from someone representing an organization that won a Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee recognized the imminent danger created by the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals. It could happen by accident or through a nuclear weapons attack. Many of us are very concerned that the current fighting between India and Pakistan could go nuclear.
However, when I arrived at the newly-renovated Shriver Hall on the Homewood Campus, the only people present were the FAS staff and other members of Prevent Nuclear War/Maryland--Dick Ochs and Dr. Gwen DuBois who were ready with leaflets. Once the event started, an estimated 60 people were in attendance in an 600-seat auditorium. I saw eight people who were not students. Most of the students, I believe, were foreign-born women. I think this fits a pattern where students overseas recognize the peril created by nuclear weapons, while in the USA youth are more apathetic about this issue.
Over the years Shriver Hall has hosted Howard Zinn, Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Cornell West, Naomi Klein, Edward Snowden, Michael Hayden and Noam Chomsky. And generally when I have attended such lectures, the auditorium was filled. So I was greatly disappointed at the turnout. It should be recognized that the Baltimore media gave no coverage to Beatrice Fihn’s talk. The only report of the talk was in the JHU Newsletter.
As an antinuke advocate since the 1970s, I have noticed over the years that the nuclear threat is not high on the agenda of many activists today. Back then many of us learned about the doomsday machine from Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE. When the belligerent Ronald Reagan became president, the anti-nuclear movement was at its height. I was in New York City on June 12, 1982 with about one million others calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Once our two busloads from Erie, PA arrived at Central Park, it was already filled. Nevertheless, there was an excellent sound system, and I will always remember hearing the voice of the renowned actor-director Orson Welles. In that booming stage-trained voice, Welles asked this question, “Ronald Reagan, are you listening?”
Today, there are still some dedicated anti-nuclear activists, including the Kings Bay Plowshares. However, our numbers are tiny in comparison to those halcyon days when we were taking on the Reagan-Bush administration. I find this remarkable, as the trigger-happy president residing in today’s White House, unless we change the law, can initiate a nuclear attack without Congressional approval. Trump’s tweet that his nuclear button is bigger than North Korea’s reminded me of Reagan’s live microphone comment “We begin bombing in five minutes.” Gallows humor is not very funny when said by Trump or Reagan.
Beatrice Fihn is a very polished speaker who kept her remarks relatively brief, which allowed for a dozen questions and answers. However, I believe the work done in Shriver Hall affected the acoustics, as three people acknowledged they had trouble hearing what Ms. Fihn said. So my write-up may be a bit inaccurate.
Nevertheless, she started her talk by observing that youth are frequently told by more experienced people to slow down, have patience and expect few results. Many of the youth who worked on securing passage of the United Nations nuclear weapons ban treaty ignored those thoughts. Impatience by the young, she added, is actually an asset. Believe in the impossible. She also noted the importance of building a movement, as one person, not Martin Luther King nor Gandhi, is able to effect significant change. She urged the audience to get involved in a community and take on tasks, no matter how trivial. She pointed out that those of us handing out leaflets were doing anti-nuclear work that needs to be done.
A Hopkins professor indicated that nuclear deterrence works. Fihn was courteous to all questioners, and always listened intently to the questioner. However, she gently pointed out the flaws in his ardor for deterrence, including the devastating effects of an accident or a miscalculation. There is also the issue of the trillion dollar cost of maintaining the nuclear arsenal, as these are tax dollars which would be better spent on social services. The professor’s support for deterrence brought Gwen to the microphone. Her essential argument was that the presidents have used nuclear weapons as a threat, and that deterrence works until it doesn’t.
A student from Pakistan made the point that there is a potential for a nuclear conflict between his homeland and India. He said that the reason for the conflict is over Kashmir, and thus disputes must be settled in order to avoid a nuclear conflict.
Cindy Farquhar informed the assembled that there is a Tuesday demonstration outside Hopkins at 33rd and North Charles Street to protest JHU’s weapons contracts. She urged students to join us.
It is difficult to judge how successful Fihn was at convincing the students to get involved in the anti-nuclear weapons movement. Reading the tea leaves after engaging in a vigil outside Hopkins for several years, I seriously doubt that students at Hopkins will get involved in any organized effort. Regardless, the situation is too dire to wait for the students to mobilize. So members of Prevent Nuclear War/Maryland will continue with our efforts to advocate for a nuclear free-world. Besides being an excellent speaker, Beatrice Fihn is an organizing juggernaut. Yes, the abolition of nuclear weapons might still be a dream, but after recognizing her group’s achievements why not believe in that impossible dream? ####
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs