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Getting beyond the deterrent paradox


It is called moral paradox. But I wonder if one day it will be spoken of as moral blindness? I am pondering nuclear deterrence. Most of us don't think much about it anymore. Not since the end of the Cold War. Not since stockpiles are getting lower. But the issue has not gone away.

Especially not for Catholics and others who aspire to moral lives. I for one imagine the day our offspring, pondering nuclear weaponry and deterrence, will look back and wonder how we could have been so blind.

It has been more than 50 years since the flash over Hiroshima and the beginning of the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. We seem to have made peace with this demon of terror, even as we wonder how terror has become such a common part of modern life. When we think of it, we explain away the potential destruction and the implied threats, saying the only purpose of these weapons is to prevent their use.

We call it moral paradox. But the weapons' power gives us sway in the world.

For Catholics a particular problem is that use of these weapons runs directly counter to a central moral affirmation in our church's traditional war teaching: that innocent lives are not open to direct attack.

Writing in the 1983 peace pastoral, "The Challenge of Peace," our bishops stated that "under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets."

The problem is that for nuclear deterrence to work the threat must be real. That is, we must truly be ready to use these weapons. Just consider our active Trident submarine fleet. U.S. policy is to use nuclear weapons if necessary. So the deadly posturing continues. With or without an enemy.

Pondering the deterrence dilemma, our bishops offered a "strictly conditioned moral acceptance" of nuclear deterrence, not as a "long-term basis for peace," but "as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament."

Many hailed the fine-tuning; others saw it as a cop-out.

Longtime Catholic peace activist Eileen Egan refers to it as "weasel wording" of the worst kind. "What really gets to me," she said recently, "is that the pope [John Paul II] said [in Hiroshima] that humanity must make a moral about-face on nuclear warfare. It is the church that must make a moral about-face. We can't wait for humanity."

Egan has never accepted nuclear deterrence as a moral posture. She remains unyielding in her opposition to the production, deployment or use of any nuclear weapon. Her position has been consistent even before she lobbied to have nuclear weapons condemned at the Vatican Council in Rome in the mid-1960s.

Eight countries today are known to have nuclear weapons. The five declared nuclear powers are: United States, over 9,000 warheads deployed and some 11,000 in reserve or awaiting dismantling; Russia, over 10,000 warheads deployed and some 10,000 in reserve or awaiting dismantling; France, over 500 warheads; China, about 450 warheads; United Kingdom, about 300 warheads. Additionally, three "threshold" states have not officially confirmed their possession of nuclear weapons: Israel, with an estimated 200 warheads; India, materials for 15-25 warheads; and Pakistan, materials for 6-10 warheads.

As the Cold War simmered down, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was replaced by arms reductions under the START I and START II treaties. Both countries have "detargeted" their nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, ratification proceedings for START II began in the Russian Duma in June 1995, but are in trouble. The START treaties, even if both are ratified and implemented, are not disarmament treaties but arms control treaties. Some of these weapons are to be dismantled, but the majority are being placed in reserve and could be used at some later time to expand deployed arsenals.

The Cold War may be over, but old habits die hard. The growing fear among scientists, policy makers and activists is that the world has come to accept nuclear deterrence as a permanent way of life. It is this fear that gave birth in April 1995, during the first weeks of the Nonproliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, to efforts to rid the world entirely of nuclear weapons. At that time activists from around the world, recognizing that the issue of nuclear abolition was not on the agenda, met to write a statement that has become the founding document of what is called the Abolition 2000 Network.

More than 600 nongovernmental organizations -- NGOs -- on six continents have signed the statement, which calls for a "world free of nuclear weapons." Among the statement's points are those calling for conclusion of negotiations on a nuclear weapons abolition convention by the year 2000. The convention would require phased elimination of all nuclear weapons within a specific time frame, with provisions for effective verification and enforcement. The statement further calls for a prohibition of nuclear weapons research, design, development and testing.

Meanwhile, one of the most important nuclear disarmament events of 1997 will be the Preparatory Committee meeting for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, taking place April 7-18 at the United Nations. At this meeting, government representatives will be assessing the state of the treaty, leading up to a review conference in the year 2000, and NGO disarmament activists will be speaking their minds.

The treaty, which became effective in 1970, is to date the centerpiece of the world's efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Most of the world's nations have signed the treaty, surrendering their right to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity. The five nuclear powers, which are also treaty signatories, are obliged by Article VI of the treaty to "pursue in good faith negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament."

Momentum for disarmament is growing, moved by the belief that the moment has arrived -- and may quickly pass -- for humanity to decide whether nuclear weapons will become a permanent part of planetary life. Last December, two more retired U.S. generals, Lee Butler and Andrew Goodpaster, called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. They were only two of dozens of generals and admirals from 17 countries, including Russia and the United States, who called for deep reductions in nuclear stockpiles and "the declared principle of continuous, complete and irrevocable elimination of nuclear weapons."

April 6, 1997, marks the beginning of what is being called "the 1,000 Day Count-Up To The Year 2000." The U.N. gathering begins the next day.

If you have not thought much about nuclear deterrence lately and find yourself among those who believe the threat of mass destruction of civilian populations is not compatible with Catholic thought, the Abolition 2000 effort deserves your attention and support.

If your group or organization wishes to sign on to the Abolition 2000 statement, send an E-mail message stating contact name, organization name, address, fax, telephone and E-mail address to: wagingpeace@napf.org. Or, for further information contact: Pamela Meidel, Facilitator, Abolition 2000 Global Network, P.O.Box 220, Port Hueneme, CA 93044 USA; tel: (805) 985-5073.

Abolition 2000 takes one beyond acquiescence to the so-called moral paradox.

Tom Fox is NCR editor and publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997