‘Build Back Better’ Means Unbuilding Nuclear Weapons
David R. Weiss – January 22, 2021
In August 1988 I played a tiny role one of the most daring occupations of nuclear weapons sites in US history. The Missouri Peace Planting, as it was called, involved the successful simultaneous entry into ten nuclear missile silo sites—an entire “flight” of ICBM missiles buried beneath America’s heartland.
I was some 500 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, helping to coordinate local and national press releases. At the time I was a very active volunteer with Nukewatch, one of the planning partners in the months-long complicated and covert planning. Two of my colleagues, Nukewatch staff Sam Day and Bonnie Urfer, were on the ground in Missouri—more specifically, on ground immediately above missile silo hatches. Altogether fifteen persons nonviolently entered silo enclosures with banners, flowers, seeds, seedlings, and music. Actions for which most of them they would spend many months in prison.
The heartfelt and profoundly moral convictions that motivated them to risk freedom in order to bear witness to truth that August thirty-two years ago continue to inspire me today. Today.
Today, January 22, 2021, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) goes into effect. Having been ratified by fifty sovereign nations around the globe (the fiftieth nation triggers it going into effect), last month 130 member nations voted in favor of a UN resolution that endorsed the treaty; some of those nations have also begun the ratification process. The TPNW places nuclear weapons under the same global ban that every other weapon of mass destruction is already under. It is hardly a radical idea, this notion that no one should possess weapons that have as their very purpose indiscriminate, wanton destruction, and unimaginable suffering. Except.
The US has resisted, opposed, and sought to undermine the TPNW since its introduction. This can hardly be laid at Trump’s feet, although his Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, had the immoral audacity to hold a press conference in March 2017, directly outside the room where treaty negotiations were beginning, so she could voice official U.S. disdain for the treaty and question whether the nations seeking to ban these weapons of unfathomable mayhem and chaos were really “looking out for their people.” Right through this past fall the U.S. was actively pressuring other nations to withdraw their treaty ratification.
To be fair, though, the Obama administration stalwartly opposed the TPNW from its inception in 2010. In October 2016, six months before official negotiations were set to begin, the US issued a public statement to the UN asserting that a treaty banning these last “allowable” weapons of mass destruction would “undermine … long-standing strategic stability.” And there’s the profound immorality of nuclear weapons in a nutshell: that we have built a world of “strategic stability”—and inseparably joined it an ongoing apocalyptic threat of death and destruction over humanity. Inseparably at least in the minds of our most seasoned politicians.
This is only a seeming moral conundrum; it collapses into moral contradiction the moment we map it out. Deterrence only deters if the threat is believable. Meaning deterrence only works if our willingness to act with near infinite immorality is convincing. Can we really imagine no better world than this?
Most of us live out our live far removed from the nuclear chain of command or delivery. But all of us—at least all of us who live in nuclear-armed democracies—we live out our lives under the shared agreement that we are okay with an imminent threat of atrocity as the day-to-day price of our normal. As of today, the TPNW declares that price as unacceptable.
Is our world a web of complex and dangerous international intrigue? Yes. But is our world also a web of complex and fragile, awe-inspiring and life-sustaining beauty? Yes. More than yes. Because this ‘yes’ frames the only door that leads to a livable future.
Our present politics, all diplomatic flattery aside, deems domination (or the threat thereof) as the hard truth in which diplomacy unfolds. This rests on a fundamental falsehood: the declaration of disconnection. That, at the end of day—and, really, all the damn day long—we are disconnected. Us. Them.
But the simple unassuming truth is connection. From cosmic scale to nanoparticle. We are them. They are us. This is why every religion holds among its core principles compassion. Often cheapened by the phrase “the Golden Rule”—wording that still pays tribute to a domination model, this truth would be better described as the Heart Song of the Cosmos. Compassion is not some burden we must bend ourselves to, it is that great joy—perhaps the only full joy—to which we give ourselves in both labor and delight.
The TPNW itself doesn’t speak of compassion. Not directly. It does, however, speak of the risks and consequences, both humanitarian and catastrophic. It speaks of ethical imperatives and the global public good. And it aligns itself with other international efforts and treaties that aim to foster conditions in this world under which greater peace and justice might be experienced by all people. It then lays out a carefully considered program for how to move toward that world by eliminating nuclear weapons—every last one of them. And whatever political will is needed to do so, it will be nourished and strengthened by compassion.
I don’t imagine the path to a world free of nuclear weapons will be travelled quickly. There is a trillion dollar industry counting on building the next generation of hell-in-weapons as their preferred means of profit. There are regimes still eager for their turn at wielding a bit of nuclear weaponry of their own (such a small, foolish, self-defeating notion of “power,” but one that the family of nuclear nations still feeds). And there are both totalitarian states and rogue actors who might wish to use nuclear threats to their advantage. Honestly, the only defense that offers real security in the face of these threats is one that deepens our embrace of our fundamental connection to one another … and to Earth itself.
So, no, it won’t be a quick, easy, or comfortable trek. But with the TPNW now taking effect, that journey begins in earnest today. God forbid that we not place our feet on the path. President Biden already pledged as a candidate (last August, on the 75th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima) to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. Earlier, both as a Senator and as Vice President, he voiced similar convictions. Now, as President, he has the opportunity to act.
But so do we. The political will that can press the President and Congress to imagine a non-nuclear last line of defense begins in our homes, around our kitchen tables—and at our computer keyboards. It begins with the cultivation of compassion as the foundational truth of our lives. Not because it feels good—it will often feel unsettling. Rather because it accords with the path to peace. Because is echoes the Heart Song of the Cosmos. Because the same energy required to love our enemies is the only energy that also allows us to truly love those we hold dear.
Hopefully, in this new day, as we work to “build back better,” we’ll recognize that this means unbuilding some things. And the newly minted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons gives us—all—one good place to start.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.