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Racism the core of Western outrage over Indian, Pakistani nuclear tests


Evil so often has such a beautiful face. We may well be seeing it now. For the last several weeks, the airwaves have almost crackled with indignity, righteousness and dismay over the recent spate of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan. If it hadn’t been for Barry Goldwater, in fact, I may have missed the masquerade. I could have missed the real issue.

When the media announced the death of Barry Goldwater, “Mr. Conservative,” I began to understand the soul sickness that underlies the issue. The sickness is hiding in the secret recesses of our anemic hearts, lurking under the conscious level of our minds.

Barry Goldwater, the country remembered with awe, sounded the Klaxon that has steered U.S. military policy, civil opinion on military policy, even, regrettably, religious attitudes toward military policy. Goldwater, the media reminds us, was clear about the moral value of nuclear defense. “Extremism in pursuit of liberty is no vice,” he said, “and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

For over 50 years we followed his advice. For over 30 years we parroted his maxim. For most of our lives, the 20th century moralized such immorality. It justified our military budget. It legitimated our use of national force. It numbed us to the global danger of nuclear weaponry.

Until the last few weeks when India and Pakistan made the same judgment. They decided, too, that to stay free, to be secure, to “defend themselves,” no moderation is acceptable, no extremism is immoral. But when they followed that policy, the United States government did everything it could to halt them. How could that be, I wondered. On what basis do we counter the arguments we gave them? From what mountaintop do we judge them?

Then, I understood. This outrage has nothing whatsoever to do with virtue. This concern has nothing to do with morality. This reaction does not come out of a high-minded fear for human security. That we abandoned in Hiroshima. And if not in Hiroshima, we certainly abdicated all purity of intention as well as the rules of war in Nagasaki, where having seen the effects of the first atomic bomb, we nevertheless dropped a second one on a city full of old men, defenseless women and blameless children on the excuse that we needed to exterminate civilians in order to save soldiers.

No, this reaction is surely not coming out of a commitment to ethical principles. This new reaction to the nuclearization of the rest of the world can only be coming out of racism.

It is apparently no problem at all to us when white governments have the bomb. Only when it is in the hands of people of color do we begin to get worried. When France tested nuclear weapons, for instance, we left it to Greenpeace to react. When member nations of the Security Council tested nuclear weapons over 2,000 times, we did nothing. When Asians protested the testing of Western weaponry in Pacific atolls, we ignored the concern.

The implications are painfully clear: You never know what “those people” are going to do. Whites, on the other hand, are “reasonable.” Whites are intelligent enough to know how to handle these things. Whites don’t destroy people -- all colonialism, slavery, napalm and economic exploitation to the contrary.

If anything unmasks us to ourselves, this must surely be it. If anything reveals the racism that is at the base of our immigration policies, our economic policies, our social policies, after half a century of nuclear testing ourselves, this latest response stands stark nakedly unarguable. We hold the hegemony on world destruction. And the rest of the world knows it all too well. In the name of protecting the world, we are holding the rest of it hostage to what have effectively become the weapons of whiteness.

But perhaps everything is not lost. Suddenly we are all concerned about nuclear weapons. The disease of global extinction, of force for its own sake, of power in place of compromise can no longer be wrapped in the flag. Maybe we will begin to hear the cries of the poor, if for no other reason than because we have come to realize that the poor who live an unlivable life have no reason not to use the weapons they develop. Maybe we will begin to face the paucity of our own arguments for keeping, developing and testing them. Maybe we will even begin to see the contradictions in our own hearts.

Any fair-minded American who believes in a nuclear defense force must certainly believe in it for everybody. Unless, of course, the worm of racism has wormed its way into their souls.

But, in the meantime, consider this, too: While we protest the equalization of nuclear force in the hands of non-whites, Phil Berrigan, peace activist, languishes in jail, often in solitary confinement and denied even the solace of visitors, because he protested our own nuclear force. Such a protest is unacceptable in this nuclearized nation where virtue and vice are the same thing. So why would anyone respond to our protesting the actions of India and Pakistan?

I bet that’s what the Indians and Pakistanis think, too. Or as a Polish mother in our town taught her children so well: “You wanted it. You got it. Now shut up.”

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998