Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. That is where we are.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists clock is an indication of dangerous times. And these are dangerous times, indeed. The clock indicates how close humanity is to a catastrophic act of self-destruction – an extinction-level event – according to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. And before you dismiss their concerns as the unrealistic ranting of eggheads who never leave the lab (as noted Trump apologist John Podhoretz did in January), consider this: They’re not just boffins in white coats. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board consists mostly of international security experts, like Steven Miller (Director of the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), and Lynn Eden (Emeritus Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation).
If the people whose jobs are to actually study the state of global security – the people whose research directs government policy here, and around the world – say that our species is closer to Doomsday this week than it has been at any time since the 1980s (remember… when Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Moscow, and the USSR murdered the 246 passengers on KAL 007?), then we should probably take them seriously.
Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Let’s think about that; let’s think about what has happened over the last two months.
The clock announcement didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper (either on paper, or on the Web). The sense of rising tension has been hard to ignore over the last few years. Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal war against his own people in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis, the terrifying black legions of ISIS, the onward march of xenophobic entho-nationalism, Russia’s rising imperialistic ambitions, the melting ice caps: if I believed in prophecy, I might think that W.B. Yeats was writing about our own times a century ago:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And here, in the United States, the President, the chief executive and commander of the world’s most formidable military, the most powerful person in the world, is talking pre-teen tough on Twitter, striding through international events like a schoolyard bully, looking to pick a fight with anyone who denies his ego and fails to turn over their lunch money.
Today, we all woke up to news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that “all options are on the table” with regard to the US’s growing confrontation with North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea with a ballistic missile program. The pariah state that, nonetheless maintains fairly friendly relations with China and India. Nuclear-armed China and India. No one likes the idea that Kim Jong-un has nukes; but you can be sure they’re even less excited that the United States (which unapologetically incinerated hundreds of thousands of Asian people with its nukes in 1945) might consider the nuclear option, when “all options are on the table.”
In case you forgot, it’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Can you hear the ticking?
At its press conference on in January – it seems so long ago now – the Bulletin was clear that America’s new president was not the only factor in the jump to two-and-a-half minutes. Things have been bad, and getting worse over the past year, and this “already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign” after which then-President-elect Donald Trump enthusiastically advocated nuclear proliferation. With tensions rising around the world, and with the international security situation poised to fly off the rails, this is not just crazy talk. It’s very, very dangerous, very frightening crazy talk: “In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”
When I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, I used to have a recurring nightmare. I was always sitting in my family’s living room in suburban Montreal looking out the big picture window. All of a sudden, there would be a flash of light, as bright as the sun, but where the sun couldn’t be. Then I would hear a shrill whining noise that would build and build until the glass of the window would blow in. And I would wake up.
It wasn’t such an unusual nightmare to have in the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1980 Olympics boycott, SDI, and the MX missile. I know many contemporaries who had the same dark dream – or something like it – over and over again. In my case, it was certainly reinforced by The Day After on ABC, and a classroom screening of Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama The War Game in ninth grade. What we felt then – and what I tell my students when I teach Contemporary American History – was not fear that a nuclear war might happen, but the expectation that it would happen.
I have been having the nightmare again; twice since Inauguration Day. The Doomsday Clock announcement only made me feel less crazy.
It has always been something of a wonder that we have never had a nuclear war. Since 1949, the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have been staring daggers at each other, armed with the most terrifying weapons human intelligence has ever devised, but not using them. There was the RDS-46, the B41, the Minuteman, and SATAN-2; and yet they were never launched in war. As the 20th century wore on, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, tested and built their own stockpiles. There are about 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, armed and ready for deployment – enough to obliterate the planet – but there were more than 60,000 by the end of the Cold War. Yet for all of this, no nuclear weapon has been used against humans since the US bombing of Nagasaki 71 years ago.
The reason is simple: the detonation of even one small-yield nuclear weapon in combat would invite retaliation and inevitably trigger a sequence of events that could destroy the planet. Our species has successfully navigated Scylla and Charybdis because our always-imperfect governments and leaders have understood the reality of Mutual-Assured Destruction, or MAD. No one, not Lyndon B. Johnson, Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mao Zedong, Harold MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle, or anyone else was willing to be the person to start a nuclear holocaust. Even if some humans did survive – a scenario addressed in a fascinating literary subgenre of the 1960s best represented by Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon – hundreds of millions, if not billions would die, leaving the survivors to scrape through a toxic nuclear winter.
Even if a global nuclear war were winnable, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory. As flawed, arrogant, or oppressive the leaders of the nuclear-armed states might always have been, they all nonetheless recognized the moral enormity of nuclear weapons. They cannot be used without killing millions of both the enemy and their own people and, at the end of the day, they have recognized that these are people. Real people. Reagan described them as “Ivan and Anya, Jim and Sally.” Sting sang that the Russians “love their children, too.” What has kept us alive for all of these years is empathy.
And this is what frightens me: We have very good evidence that the most powerful person in the world, a man with 7,000 thermonuclear weapons at his personal disposal – weapons whose proliferation and use he casually advocates – is a narcissistic solipsist apparently devoid of empathy.
Nothing that President Trump has done or said as the chief executive, as a candidate, or as a private citizen, suggests that he believes other people are, in fact, people with their own lives, feelings, and needs. With a stroke of the pen, he barred all Syrian refugees from entering the United States, almost certainly condemning tens of thousands to misery and death. That he did so while simultaneously failing to note in his Holocaust Remembrance Day message that six million actual Jewish people died in the camps – not merely unnumbered, abstract “victims” – suggests that he cannot recognize or comprehend the suffering of others. And when the courts struck down his executive order, he just tried again. The news that TrumpCare will ultimately rob 24,000,000 people of their health insurance, while providing a windfall for his wealthy friends, doesn’t seem to worry the president at all.
Indeed, President Trump seems to regard other people as an abstraction. They exist as undifferentiated masses – the “million and a half people” he believes packed the National Mall on inauguration day, the “three to five million” illegal voters, the hordes of immigrant terrorists and murderers, even the nameless, faceless “Americans” of his imagination – but not as individuals. People are not subjects to President Trump, they are objects who exist solely in relation to his own ego. Even his daughter Ivanka, whom he says he’d “be dating” if he wasn’t her father, is a hot “piece of ass.” What is important are his delusions of persecution: by the free press, by President Obama, by anyone who doubts his greatness.
This kind of narcissistic solipsism is fairly harmless in a reality TV star, and it is very likely the secret of President Trump’s mythic success in the real estate business. But in the leader of the world’s greatest nuclear superpower it is the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. The solipsist denies the reality of what lies beyond his own mind; the narcissist is emotionally isolated and unable to feel empathy. How can we count on a man incapable of empathy to consider the consequences of Mutual-Assured Destruction?
The President’s staff and congressional Republicans seem to think they have everything under control. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer feeds President Trump’s narcissism and shrugs away his delusions, repeating them without explicit endorsement from the podium. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismisses the President’s allegations of massive voter fraud, but thinks “it’s fine” for him to indulge his self-aggrandizing fantasies with a special investigation, while using his cult of personality to advance a cold, callous, conservative agenda. They are playing at a kind of rodeo brinksmanship, and they will ride this horse for as long as they can, and as long as they get what they want.
They are courting disaster. They are riding a bronco to the brink, and when they go over, like Slim Pickens astride a hydrogen bomb in the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove, the consequences will be catastrophic.
It’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Maybe less.