Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

( 5 of 8 )

Our Bomb

By Mohammed Hanif

Our bomb — the Pakistani bomb — isn’t just a weapon constructed in a nuclear lab by a bunch of overqualified scientists. It’s an extension of our foundational myth, according to which Pakistan wasn’t merely the result of an anticolonial political struggle but an act of God. Our myth of the bomb involves a Dutch-trained metallurgist, A. Q. Khan, who became a national hero and was christened the Father of the Bomb. He was later disgraced on national television for selling our nuclear secrets. It involves a popular prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who pledged that we would make our bomb even if we had to eat grass. Bhutto was hanged. The myth also involves a military dictator, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who innocently asked, “What bomb?” The Americans knew that Pakistan was developing an atomic weapon, but they needed Zia for their proxy wars, so they looked the other way while we quietly begged, borrowed, and stole to build our bomb.

Pakistan’s nuclear program was born a year after the country’s breakup, a trauma so intense that we have almost erased it from our history. After decades of misrule and a world-class massacre, East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — declared independence in 1971. Our archenemy India intervened, and three divisions of the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dhaka. Its celebrated soldiers became POWs. Pakistan’s elite, who had fed the population stories of our martial prowess, found it hard to live with the fact that our old foe had inflicted a fatal wound. And if India could do it once, what would stop India from doing it again?

Soon after our soldiers returned home from their ordeal in prison, India carried out its first nuclear test. The enemy had made its intentions clear. The enemy was developing the instrument of our total humiliation. This was our moment to eat grass and make our bomb.

A portrait of A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, painted on a tanker © Piers Benatar/Panos

It was between that moment and Pakistan’s first test, twenty-four years later, that our nuclear mission became part of our national mythology. At least some of these myths were perpetuated to bolster our fragile egos. When the West described Pakistan’s nuclear program as an attempt to build an Islamic bomb rather than a nationalistic enterprise, we rejoiced that we were finally the Muslim world’s undisputed protector. It fed into our narratives about our promises to liberate Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, even Chechnya. It didn’t bother us that we hadn’t brought any of them closer to their respective ideas of freedom. We had ensured ours. But at what cost?

We are not quite eating grass, but we are severely malnourished. Twenty-three million of our children are out of school. Hundreds of women are killed each year in the name of honor. But we know that there is a big bad world out there. And that world can’t touch us because we have our bomb. It gives us the power to think like a superpower.

Sometimes, however, we worry that our bomb hasn’t quite given us the all-encompassing protection we need. We have taken more than eighty thousand casualties in the so-called war on terror — domestic and otherwise — over the past fifteen years. We can hardly use the bomb against the men hiding in our own cities, blowing up our own citizens. Our bomb is for others.

Sure, as soon as there is a scare on the borders, there are sleepless nights in Western capitals because of our bomb. Diplomats rush back and forth between Delhi and Islamabad trying to calm our nerves. There is always this fear — a fear that we relish — that if we feel an existential threat to our country, we might use our bomb.

But we have an even greater fear: someone might steal our bomb and use it against us, or our friends, or our enemies. Western countries like spreading this fear. Every few months, there is a think tank report or a newspaper analysis that asks: Is Pakistan’s nuclear program safe? Can rogue elements get access to Pakistan’s weapons? Can one of Pakistan’s many enemies destroy their bomb? On these questions we are united. Those who love the bomb and those who feel squeamish about it all agree that our bomb is as safe as your bomb. It’s actually safer than any bomb in the world. Many newspaper stories in the Western press refer to Islamabad as that place forty miles from Pakistan’s nuclear facilities — as if they have our bomb’s postal code. They don’t know what they’re talking about. We can’t really tell anybody, let alone our own citizens, how safe our bomb is, or what pains we have taken to keep it that way. If we told you how we’ve made it safe, then what would be the point?

Sometimes the doubters among us wonder if ours is the only nuclear deterrent in the world that, rather than protecting us, needs our protection. In a perverse kind of way, we are always pledging to keep our bomb safe. We don’t really feel like the owners of an amazingly destructive power, it seems, but like a poor widow who has only one family jewel and believes everybody is out to rob her.

Some of us who don’t love the bomb as much as they should wonder if the bomb really has made us safe. They seem to think that it has protected militants who intend to harm our neighbors, and sometimes our own people. Nobody is going to come after them, because they are operating out of a sovereign country with a bomb, and we keep reminding the world that we’ll use this bomb if our sovereignty is threatened. Sometimes we have to stretch the definition of our sovereignty in order to keep our bomb safe. We are still not sure whether it was Osama bin Laden who violated our sovereignty by taking refuge here, or the Americans, by barging in one night and killing him. Sovereignty is a complex notion. Our bomb is much simpler. Let us keep it that way.

That simplicity was channeled by one of our most influential media moguls, Majid Nizami, who said that his last wish was to be tied to our bomb and dropped over India. He died of old age a couple of years ago. But his dream, like our national mythology, lives on. If our bomb can’t save us from our daily mayhem, it can still put the fear of God into our enemies’ hearts. It can definitely teach India a lesson, even if that lesson means our shared destruction.

More from Elaine Scarry:

Readings From the May 2004 issue

Acts of resistance

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content