Nuclear hysteria and destiny

Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last week, Senator Mark Begich beamed with pride about his efforts to get funding for the missile defense system in Alaska. The military appropriations bill signed by President Obama will ensure the completion of silo construction at Fort Greely. Begich seems to believe that these are vital to "our defense against North Korea and Iranian ballistic missiles." Is it leadership though to evoke fear using threats that don't yet exist?

John Mueller, a professor of political science, might place our junior senator in the camp of nuclear alarmists. In a recent article published in Foreign Policy magazine, he argues that the "only real effect of nuclear weapons is humanity's unhealthy obsession with them, a preoccupation that has inspired some seriously bad policy decisions." And he adds that America has "endured decades of hysteria over the potential for nuclear proliferation, even though the proliferation that has actually taken place has been both modest and substantially inconsequential."

But if Begich is unnecessarily alarming Alaskans, what does Mueller's position say about those of us who believe that total disarmament is necessary to prevent a worldwide nuclear catastrophe? Are both sides hyping causes that enable each other to define purpose to their lives?

Joseph Campbell, an American scholar and author famous for his extensive work in comparative mythology and religion, considered the public fear about nuclear war to be needless anxiety.

"If you are at peace with eternity" he wrote in 1984, "the blowing up of the universe is perfectly acceptable - just as your own death has to be acceptable. It is going with the organic processes. Everything that comes ... goes."

Death is the one destiny all humanity shares. Yet it is a subject far less likely than politics and religion to be invited to the proverbial dinner table. Unless we have lost a family member or close friend or someone we love is terminally ill, we'll generally resist wondering about death entirely. It's a morbid idea opposed to enjoying life fully.

But from a politician's perspective, death parallels taxes as a word ready to help mobilize public opinion behind their cause. Begich's suggestion that North Korea and Iran would use nuclear weapons to attack America isn't any different than former Gov. Sarah Palin's bizarre accusation that President Obama's health care proposal would create "death panels" to decide who is worthy of receiving health care.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks allowed President Bush to begin two wars by appealing to our weaker instincts.

Look back at some of his administration's war on terror rhetoric: "We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens" and the "clash of civilizations." These elicit anxiety because death is in the message. The sole purpose of such simple-minded noise is to put a lid on intelligent discourse.

Yet it seems that death and destruction also fascinates American minds in relation to natural disasters. Consider that the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Fairbanks area in 2002 was 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California. The major networks immediately sent reporters to bring live coverage of the damage in San Francisco, but no one came to Fairbanks, probably because there were no deaths to report.

Without death "over there," the news lacks the sensational appeal to our repressed curiosity. It's as if we only care to consider death as part of life when it's not part of our lives.

Begich hasn't made America any safer by joining the "hysteria over the potential for nuclear proliferation." The strength of a nation isn't enhanced by hyping insecurity. Whether or not one agrees with the outcome of his political maneuvering, he's done a disservice to our democracy by evoking images of a nuclear attack as the justification to bring military pork to Alaska.

Campbell may seem to imply we shouldn't worry at all about an apocalyptic nuclear tragedy, but he adds he "doesn't mean that one shouldn't participate in efforts to correct the situation, but understanding the effort to change must be an 'at peace'" with our own mortality.

After all, it is death that fully informs how we choose to live by restoring the question of the ages: Why are we here?

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau.

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