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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

Protesters call for nuclear-free world

Arrests at Nevada Test Site as activists mark Hiroshima anniversary

Las Vegas

At dusk, the president of the United States climbed onto a makeshift stage in the middle of the Nevada desert and issued a stream of pardons for more than 500 protesters on the verge of federal detainment. The gathered men and women stood minutes away from crossing the line at the Nevada Test Site, the Department of Energy’s on-continent proving ground, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas and the location of nearly 1,000 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests since its creation in 1950. “I think I’ll issue [the pardons] before we even get started,” said the president, to overwhelming applause. “Then I’ll see you on the line.”

This was not, in fact, the current Republican president residing in Washington but actor and Catholic activist Martin Sheen, riffing on his popular portrayal of Democratic President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s “The West Wing.” Sheen was among the featured guests taking part in a conference held at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas over the weekend of Aug. 4-7, titled “Many Stories, One Vision for a Nuclear-Free World,” and sponsored by Pax Christi USA and the Nevada Desert Experience.

The conference coincided with public commemorations around the globe in observance of the 60th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. At the Nevada Test Site, another featured speaker, author and activist Jesuit Fr. John Dear, read aloud a letter written by Tadotoshi Akiba, mayor of Hiroshima, pleading that those “who hold the memory of Hiroshima in your hearts for the rest of your lives continue to do everything in your power to sow the seeds of nuclear abolition.”

Dear arrived at the test site hours after leading similar protest actions in Los Alamos, N.M., in which over 300 peaceful protesters invoked the Book of Jonah and poured ashes on the streets “to repent of the sin of war and nuclear weapons.”

Shortly after midnight, 206 people -- ranging in age from teenagers to those in their late 80s -- made their way in the darkness down a rocky desert path, flashlights in hand, then crossed the line. They were detained for roughly one hour in preconstructed pens before being released. A team of chartered buses returned the protesters to the conference’s base on the university campus at close to 3 a.m.

This prayerful public witness was the culmination of a weekend retreat that David Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, said was an opportunity to bring together people of faith with varied strengths. He said those strengths -- analytical, pastoral, legal, technological -- should be placed in the service of writing “a new story,” a faithful Catholic’s vision of a nuclear-free age. Conference attendees took part in educational workshops dealing with such topics as international law, globalization, universities and militarism, and the ongoing effects of nuclear power on the environment.

Delivering remarks to a crowd of several hundred at Moyer Student Union the evening of Aug. 5, Robinson called the story of the nuclear age “one missed opportunity after another.” Only within the specter of mutually assured destruction, he claimed, has “our society found peace -- a twisted version of shalom.” To Robinson, a painful and paradoxical lesson could be gleaned from the American invasion of Iraq, which sent countries considering the development of nuclear capabilities the following message: “If you don’t have weapons of mass destruction, you risk invasion.”

Robinson reminded attendees that the conference came on the heels of remarks by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, who clarified the Vatican’s position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in an official address to the United Nations in May. The treaty, said Migliore, “must not be allowed to be weakened. … Nuclear weapons assault life on the planet, they assault the planet itself, and in so doing they assault the process of the continuing development of the planet. The preservation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty demands an unequivocal commitment to genuine nuclear disarmament.”

Other conference speakers included Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center. In full white beard and braided skullcap, Waskow led the conference in prayer and called upon those gathered to honor the Shabbat: the contemplative pause at the end of the week.

Throughout his remarks, Robinson phrased the present nuclear threat in terms of a shared narrative, “our story,” and called the numerous challenges to nuclear disarmament in a triumphalist, post-Cold War society “opportunities which God has placed before us.”

“Are you ready to be part of the new story?” he asked the crowd. “Will we write a new one?”

Paul Winner is a freelance writer attending divinity school in New York.

Islander recounts suffering from hydrogen bomb

Tony de Brum was 9 years old and living on the island of Likiep in the Marshall Islands, an archipelago of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Indonesia and Hawaii, when on the morning of March 1, 1954, he looked north to glimpse a sudden, blinding flash of white. Then everything turned the color of blood.

“It was as if a great red bowl had been placed over us,” said de Brum, who had just become a firsthand witness to the Bravo Shot, the most powerful hydrogen bomb detonation in history, equal to the explosive force of 1,000 Hiroshimas. A gritty ash swept over the islanders, who had no advance warning of the explosion and were hastily evacuated to larger islands for treatment. Burns, vomiting and hair loss were all reported within the next 72 hours. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission soon issued a statement claiming that isolated Marshallese had been “unexpectedly exposed to some radioactivity. There were no burns. All were reported well.”

A week after the detonation, Project 4.1, “Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons,” took 67 native inhabitants exposed to gamma radiation for extensive covert testing. Two additional numbers -- 68 and 69 -- were assigned to fetuses, insulated from not quite everything in their pregnant mothers’ wombs. De Brum vividly recalls visits from military scientists to Likiep, “where they subjected every one of us to tests and invasive physical examinations, which, as late as 1978, they denied ever carrying out.” He has not forgotten the casual abuse of native islanders, the wholesale killing of village dogs, and even dental extractions (of both healthy and unhealthy teeth) performed on the islanders by military doctors, prefaced with the command, “Open wide, monkey.”

Subsequent birthing anomalies that stemmed from radiation were dismissed as “the result of incest or a gene pool that was too small.” Even the forced exiles -- some of which are still in effect today -- were justified to the deeply religious Marshallese as “the will of God.”

“What I once found amusing,” de Brum said in a voice weighted with sadness, “is now repugnant to me.”

The tests marked the beginning of de Brum’s lifelong struggle to bring the federal government’s relationship with the Marshall Islands to full public attention. He remained on his home island of Likiep for the 12-year duration of the U.S. atomic and thermonuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands, and later represented the islands as a senator and public servant. Far from being freed of its past, the islands now serve as a receiving ground for testing long-range missiles.

Today, in his 60s, de Brum continues the fight for recognition and justice in the hopes that the social and environmental realities in his homeland will not return to 1954 conditions, a danger which de Brum fears is all too likely.

“The destruction of lands and water is no different from destroying our souls,” he said. “And no destruction is acceptable in the name of security.”

-- Paul Winner

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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