Special Feature — July 11, 2018, 2:50 pm

Northern Disposure

How Rob Ford’s brother campaigned—and won—on an anti-sex-education platform

Parents opposed to Ontario’s revised sex-ed curriculum protest outside a Malton event attended by Premier Kathleen Wynne in 2015. Photo by Rob Beintema.

Canada looms large in the liberal imagination. Long idealized as the kinder, gentler counterpoint to its southern neighbor, the True North’s brand is now closely linked with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a handsome fetish object for American Democrats suffering Obama-withdrawal syndrome. The Trudeau Mash Note has become a genre of journalism, from an August 2017 Rolling Stone cover story (“Justin Trudeau: Why Can’t He Be Our President?”) to steady-stream BuzzFeed clickbait (“Justin Trudeau High-Fiving a Girl Dressed as Wonder Woman at Pride Is Peak Trudeau”) to a June 13 New Yorker op-ed titled “Why Justin Trudeau is Able to Stand Up to Donald Trump.” In the latter piece, Adam Gopnik used the prime minister’s rebuke to Trump’s bullying at the G-7 summit to muse on “the Canadian national character, if I may call it that, that makes Canadians so ready to take on bullies.” Gopnik dismisses with just one sentence an inconvenient fact: on June 7, Canada’s largest province elected what will likely become the most right-wing government in its history.

“Folks, make no mistake about it,” said Doug Ford on January 29 while announcing his candidacy for Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leadership race. “The elites of this party—the ones who have shut out the grassroots—do not want me in this race.” This may seem like an odd line from a millionaire businessman and former city councilor whose father was a Conservative member of Ontario’s provincial parliament, and whose brother was the mayor of Toronto. Many factors contributed to Ford’s eventual success in the Ontario election: an unpopular Liberal Party incumbency that had hung on since 2003; a split in the center-to-left vote between the Liberals and the social-democratic NDP; and the effectiveness of Ford’s own hazy, nonspecific brand of populism. But before that, it is true that Ford was a contentious figure in his own party whose ascent to leadership largely depended on energizing Canadian social conservatives.

How liberal is Canada? Liberal enough that Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne could become Ontario’s first openly gay premiere without it becoming a major campaign issue. But also conservative enough that one of her signature legislative achievements—the first comprehensive update of the province’s sex-education curriculum since 1998—has become a central battleground in the Canadian culture wars. According to the Campaign Life Coalition, a socially conservative lobby group, Wynne was “a long time, gay-activist” who “rammed through . . . curriculum and policies designed to indoctrinate children into accepting homosexuality as normal and healthy.” Doug Ford put it more politely while campaigning for the Progressive Conservative leadership: “Unlike the Liberals, I know that parents, not government, are our first educators when it comes to our children. The sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology. Parents should have the first and final say on what they want to teach their kids past this point.”

Doug Ford’s careful language will be familiar to anyone who lived in Toronto during the mayoralty of his brother, Rob (who briefly rose to international notoriety when a video emerged of him smoking crack cocaine). During his four-year term (2010–14), Rob Ford was beloved by many for his skill at retail politics (he was legendary for his reputation of always returning every constituent phone call) and intensely controversial for his (zealous) fiscal and (cagey) social conservatism. His frosty relationship with the city’s LGBTQ+ communities was a four-year headache.

Social conservatism is a tricky line to walk in multicultural Toronto, and both Rob and Doug were skillful at maintaining just enough plausible deniability. Every year like clockwork he declined to march in the Pride parade, which somehow always seemed to conflict with his family’s annual cottage trip. His votes against funding for Pride events, HIV/AIDS initiatives, and an LGBTQ+ homeless shelter could be rationalized as consistent with his small-government conservatism (as Doug memorably put it, “Rob’s a spendaphobic, not a homophobic”). When city council voted to hang the Pride flag at City Hall during the Sochi Olympics to protest LGBTQ+ persecution in Russia, Rob hung the Canadian flag in his office window in protest, but insisted that he was merely “supporting our athletes.” In a YouTube video about this last controversy, Rob said, “I am not homophobic—I will go to anyone’s house, anyone’s place to help them out.” In an interview with CNN at the height of the crack scandal, Doug insisted, “Everyone keeps saying Rob’s a conservative. He’s a huge, massive social liberal. He loves Obama. The headline of the papers when he won? ‘The White Obama.’” Their idea of a “social liberal” may sound more like a “social libertarian” to you. Rob’s words could also be interpreted by his supporters as: “No special treatment.”

Rob’s plausible deniability more or less broke down during his last year in office. “I’m not going to go to Pride parade. I’ve never gone to a Pride parade. So I’m not going to change the way I am,” he flatly stated in 2014. This happened to be the year that Toronto hosted WorldPride, but at the first council meeting after the events, Rob refused to stand and applaud for staff that participated. More troubling than his actions were what they inspired in his supporters: Kristyn Wong-Tam, the only openly gay member of Toronto’s city council at present, reported receiving homophobic hate mail from “Ford Nation” supporters. In summer 2014, Ford Fest (the Ford family’s annual community barbecue) became the site of an altercation between gay activists and Ford Nationals (“Numerous people said he was looking for trouble,” said Doug Ford of a gay protester).

For the Fords and their supporters, gay rights were “special interests” and the territory of “downtown elites.” Such wedge politics were the bread and butter of Rob Ford for his entire political career. Before becoming mayor, he served for a decade as a city councilor from Etobicoke, one of the suburbs amalgamated into Toronto in 1998. Residents across the region overwhelmingly voted against amalgamation in a 1997 plebiscite, but Ontario’s then-Conservative government implemented it anyway, and the decision created a sprawling city with deep cultural and geographic divides. The decision remains controversial to this day. Rob Ford’s 2010 campaign harnessed this sense of alienation through a couple of simple slogans (“Stop the gravy train,” “Respect for taxpayers”), uniting “Ford Nation”—an impressive suburban coalition that crossed race and class.

Through it all, the Fords were savvy media players, waging a four-year war of words with the liberal daily Toronto Star and hosting a weekly talk-radio show on the center-right Newstalk 1010. The Ford era also coincided with the emergence of new, far-right media venues. Canada’s equivalent to the Daily Mail, The Toronto Sun, was a regular source of Ford support, and from 2011 to 2015 lent its name to the Sun News Network, a failed attempt at a Canadian imitation of Fox News. From its ashes emerged the Rebel Media, an online news hub in the Breitbart mold, founded by Sun News hosts Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley. The Rebel’s popularity in Canada is modest, and thanks to such contributors as Faith Goldy and Gavin McInnes (both now departed), it has had a substantial international reach. Meanwhile, social media has given birth to Ontario Proud—ostensibly a “nonpartisan” group advocating “strategic voting” against the Liberal Party—whose 375,000-plus Facebook followers see a daily stream right-wing memes and clickbait.

The Rebel Media’s lineup of alt-right all-stars (which once posted a video by Gavin McInnes titled “10 Things I Hate About Jews”) has made it especially hard for conservative politicians to navigate, and after the violence in Charlottesville, many past guests found it prudent to disavow the website. This problem was not isolated: A 2017 investigation by Press Progress found that 25 percent of federal Conservative parliamentarians had appeared in the Rebel’s videos, including federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. One notable Rebel guest was Rob Ford, who, in a 2015 interview, spoke out against the sex-ed curriculum. At the time of the interview, Ford was back in his old council seat after dropping out of the mayor’s race due to a cancer diagnosis (he died in March 2016). Of the curriculum, he said, “It makes me sick to my stomach . . . because I have two kids. . . . My one in grade two and my other one in grade four should not be talking about what anal sex is, or what a blow job is. This is what they’re teaching these kids! I’m sorry, that makes me sick.”

Ontario’s “new” sex-ed curriculum was ready to go in 2010 just as Kathleen Wynne was shifted out of her role as the minister of education, but was shelved by then-premiere Dalton McGuinty after pressure from conservative religious groups. Four years later, Wynne had the majority government and the political capital to push it through, replacing a curriculum that was desperately out of date. “The [‘old’ curriculum] was released over fifteen years ago,” notes Carly Basian, a Toronto-based sexual health educator who teaches workshops through her My Sex Ed program. “There was nothing about sexual orientation; nothing about consent; nothing about online safety. A lot of the teachers I work with have already been talking about a lot of these subjects even prior to the release of the curriculum.”

But the controversy never quite died down. One of the curriculum’s most vocal critics is Charles McVety—president of the Canada Christian College and president of a social-conservative think tank, the Institute for Canadian Values. McVety was once a fringe figure (his show on the television station CTS was cancelled for suggesting, as the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council put it, that “homosexuals prey on children”), but he stood alongside Ford at Toronto’s Prayer Palace in February, where Ford pledged, “I can guarantee you we’ll make sure the church has a voice. All the time. All the time.” McVety promised his 3,854 Facebook followers that Ford “will repeal radical sex education.” He also predicted that “the leadership will be won by just a few thousand votes.” On the second point, he was correct: Ford narrowly defeated the moderate, establishment-backed candidate Christine Elliott on the third ballot.

What is in the Ontario sex-ed curriculum? Here are some highlights: in grade one, students learn the correct terminology for body parts; in grade three, about healthy relationships and how visible differences (e.g., skin, hair and eye color, clothing, physical ability) and invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, different family types such as one-parent, two-parent, two-mom or two-dad, grandparents, caregivers) make each person unique; in grade four; puberty and its physical changes; in grade five, the reproductive system and online safety; in grade six, consent; from grades seven to nine, sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, contraception, and bullying/harassment (including sexting). And in grade eight, there is discussion of the factors influencing gender identity and sexual orientation.

Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator, has found the most common misconception to be a flattening of all these grades. “The sex-ed component . . . starts in grade one, and [parents] might hear something like, ‘Oh, there’s mention of anal sex,’ and they conflate the two, and think, ‘Oh, well, they’re talking about anal sex in the first grade’—which is not at all the case. In first grade it’s very, very basic.” Oral and anal sex are mentioned in grades seven and eight, in the context of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections—or as the Campaign Life Coalition interprets it, “Under the pretext of encouraging abstinence from behaviors associated with high risk for STDs, the curriculum uses a sleight of hand to sneakily introduce to children the concepts of ‘anal intercourse’ and ‘oral-genital contact.’”

It is true that in grade three, the concept of gender diversity is introduced, leading Doug Ford to remark in one campaign stop, “They are trying to breathe this ideology down our backs . . . six different genders and all the nonsense. . . . We don’t need to learn about that.” Basian counters, “In grade three, teachers are supposed to help students understand the difference between visible differences and invisible differences. Within these invisible-differences categories, they bring up sexual orientation and gender identity as examples of something that may be different that you may not be able to necessarily see.

“A lot of people feel, ‘Oh, wow—grade three, talking about sexual orientation and gender identity? That’s really young, that’s really inappropriate!’ First of all, it’s not. From a developmental standpoint, research shows that children have an understanding of gender identity as early as age five . . . and furthermore, it’s an example of what individual difference looks like. It’s not just focusing solely on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the multitude of things that make us different—our likes, invisible disabilities like dyslexia, mental health, and other things.”

Many of the most controversial passages are optional “Teacher Prompts” to help guide educators in their class discussion. In particular, one in grade six has been a bone of contention: “Exploring one’s body by touching and masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.” Does this voluntary discussion topic promote masturbation, as some critics have argued? “The specific expectation in grade six is to help students have a strong understanding of healthy relationships and building a foundation for healthy relationships,” says Basian. “[It leads to] this whole idea that having an understanding of your body will help you communicate in the future what your needs are to your partners for healthy relationships. We’re not teaching how to masturbate . . . but it’s just one way of approaching the subject.”

Thornhill notes that there may still be room for improvement in the teacher prompts: “I have questions about what sort of training are teachers receiving, and how well prepared are they to talk about these issues in class. What is the protocol if a question comes up that is extremely sensitive or personal?” However, she adds, “What people don’t always understand is that the teacher prompts are really there as examples. When they were developing this curriculum, teachers had questions about, ‘How do we bring up these topics? What do we say? What are appropriate ways of discussing these subjects for kids of different ages and development levels?’ The prompts are there as examples.”

“At the end of the day, the curriculum is very holistic,” says Basian. “It’s touching on many different, important parts of human development and sexual health; and it’s aligned with our human rights, our code of conduct, our diversity, equality and inclusion. It’s totally in alignment with our Canadian laws and values.”

June’s Conservative victory has been a long time coming. From 2003 to 2014, the Ontario Liberals weathered serious corruption scandals to win four consecutive elections. In 2014, Conservative leader Tim Hudak blew his party’s frontrunner status with a pledge to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs. In 2011, Hudak overemphasized sex education with a campaign that was widely regarded as homophobic. It would not be unfair to say that Ontario has a conservative streak (the Progressive Conservative party led parliament uninterrupted from 1943 to 1985, and the Liberals have more or less adopted its former big-tent approach), but in recent years, the Progressive Conservatives have struggled to translate ideas that are popular with the base into broadly appealing campaigns.

This year, Doug Ford solved the problem by emphasizing vague economic populism (“Life in this province is unaffordable—it’s becoming impossible for families to keep the lights on”) while never releasing a fully costed platform. He talked to the media as little as possible and watched while the plummeting Liberals blunted the second-place NDP. The Conservatives smartly pushed sex ed into the background during the general campaign, and cannily maneuvered flare-ups over its more socially conservative parliamentary candidates. In a postelection scrum with reporters, Ford confirmed that his party would be “repealing” the sex-ed curriculum but has yet to confirm a timeline. Charles McVety wrote on Facebook, “Praise God who heard our prayers and delivered victory,” and the Campaign Life Coalition celebrated the “end of Wynne’s reign of terror.”

Ford was sworn in as premiere on June 29, and wasted little time. On July 11, Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced that when students go back to school in September, they will be taught the 1998 curriculum—the one that predates social media and same-sex marriage. The government says that it will soon begin discussing a revamp of the curriculum, which it promises will be in collaboration with parents.

If Canada is indeed “famously obliging” (as Adam Gopnik puts it in the New Yorker), it’s also a country that can allow for a monstrous residential school system that forcibly separated indigenous children from their families—a so-called civilizing mission that inflicted generations of emotional and sexual abuse (the last residential school was only closed in 1996). In 2014, John Tory—soon-to-be mayor of Toronto—was asked if white privilege exists, and he responded, “White privilege? No, I think—no, I don’t know that it does. I mean, I think there are people who are left behind, and I think what they need is a hand up from people of all different skin colors and religions and backgrounds.” Less than a week after Gopnik’s ode to Trudeau’s refusal to accept bullies, the prime minister told the Canadian parliament he would not “play politics” by commenting on the United States’ family-separation policy, only denouncing it after days of intense pressure. Last week, Ford’s government announced that Ontario would no longer financially assist the federal government in resettling asylum seekers Doug Ford’s tough-guy affect is in stark contrast to Trudeau’s politeness, and it can feel like cognitive dissonance knowing the same country could elect both. But just as some centrists can overlook Trudeau’s arms trading with Sauda Arabia and focus on his social-justice rhetoric, so too can others overlook Ford’s ties to Charles McVety because someone needs to “shake things up.”

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August 2018

Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:


Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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