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Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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Nuclear Citizenship

By Elaine Scarry

A nuclear weapon, like any weapon, has two ends: the end from which it is fired and the end through which it inflicts injury. But in the case of nuclear weapons, there is a unique disproportion between the two ends. The injuring end has the capacity to kill hundreds of thousands of people instantly. The firing end, by contrast, requires only the will of a single person — or at most a set of persons whose numbers are infinitesimal compared with those who will be harmed.

In theory, laws are already in place to invalidate nuclear weapons. International laws explicitly restrict what happens at the injury end. The Geneva Protocol prohibits weapons that inflict disproportionate suffering. The Hague Conventions prohibit weapons whose lethal effects can spread to neutral regions and affect innocent populations. The UN Convention on Genocide prohibits acts committed with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Other treaties — such as the Rio Declaration and the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer — name the earth itself, rather than people, as the injured party.

At the other end, the firing end, individual constitutions provide constraints that also ought to forbid the use of nuclear weapons. Some constitutions stipulate that the country cannot initiate war unless a large number of citizens agree that the putative enemy has done something to warrant it. Furthermore, they require that the demonstration of this consent be individually burdensome and costly, something more than the click of a mouse or an anonymous poll.

The Constitution of the United States is one such document. It places two impediments in the way of initiating war. The first is well known: the requirement for a declaration of war by Congress. The cost to lawmakers is the obligation to deliver open arguments, subject to rigorous testing, and climaxing in a roll-call vote that makes the yea voters responsible for whatever follows. The other impediment is less familiar but is implicit in the Second Amendment: confirmation by the population, which is given agency over the weapons. The cost to them is the risk of death if one agrees to fight, and the risk of ostracism or jail if one declines. Giving a voice to the citizenry as well as to legislators is key. In the debates surrounding the creation of the Constitution, the Founders repeatedly stressed that people of all ages, economic groups, and regions must be given authority over arms.

The US Constitution is not unique in stipulating such constraints. The constitutions of several other nuclear states — France, Russia, and India — assert that the legislature, not the executive, has responsibility for authorizing the country’s entry into war. And the Russian constitution includes a provision that is a close cousin of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms: it states that all adult Russian citizens bear responsibility for defending the country.

Despite the international and domestic frameworks that would seem to outlaw the existence of nuclear weapons, a handful of individuals — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un among them — currently possess the ability to condemn entire populations to sudden extinction. How did this come to pass? Given the stark incompatibility of nuclear weapons and legislatures, citizens, constitutions, and international laws, how have such weapons persisted and flourished?

One usual answer is that nuclear weapons cannot be unmade. But that is obviously false. The nine nuclear states are confined to the Northern Hemisphere; the Southern Hemisphere is blanketed with treaties making those continents and countries free of nuclear weapons. It wouldn’t be difficult for nuclear-armed nations to accomplish the same. A Scottish study, for instance, has established a concrete timetable for disassembling the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. Some parts of this work (dismantling the nuclear triggers) would take hours, other parts (bringing the submarines into port), days, but the UK could ditch its nuclear weapons entirely in four years. Compared with global warming, unmaking these bombs is simple and straightforward.

Nuclear weapons have persisted not because they resist dismantling, but because they have infantilized and miniaturized our political institutions. Ever since the atomic bomb and its successors enabled leaders to wipe out millions instantly, US presidents have not bothered to seek a congressional declaration when initiating a conventional war (Korea, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan) or carrying out an invasion (Panama, Haiti). Congress, when it acted at all, issued enfeebled forms of authorization or conditional declarations. Deprived of its single greatest constitutional duty (what Justice Joseph Story once called the cornerstone of the Constitution), Congress became irrelevant at best.

During the first three decades of the nuclear age, the citizenry remained more involved than Congress, simply because the population was still needed to carry the weapons onto the battlefield. But once conscription was eliminated after the Vietnam War, and a voluntary army could be supplemented by contractors who served as the president’s private military, the citizenry, too, forgot that it was responsible for authorizing the use of the country’s arms, and finally concluded that its only responsibility was to watch executive-ordered violence unfold on television.

Clockwise from top left: drawings by Takeda Hatsue, Takemoto Hideko, Yamashita Masato, Murakami Misako, Furukawa Shoichi, and Yokota Haruyo, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Courtesy the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

When the Founders described the right to bear arms as the “palladium of liberty,” they were not speaking of our right to carry a gun into a drugstore or a university classroom. They were speaking about the population’s collective power to say yes or no to war. Similarly, when John Locke described the legislature as the “soul” of any democratic government, he was speaking first and foremost about the constraints that the legislature imposed on the executive impulse to go to war.

Over this seven-decade affair with nuclear weapons, we’ve forgotten that we still have the constitutional tools to eliminate them. We have both the moral responsibility and the legal means to enable legislatures and citizens to recover their rightful stature, and to rid the world, finally, of these obscene instruments of devastation.

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