Back from the Brink hosts panel discussion on nuclear abolition by Michael Centore

Author and investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen pushed back strongly against the policy of nuclear deterrence on Wednesday evening, calling it “a relic” and “an absurd idea.”

Jacobsen’s comments came as part of an online event hosted by Back from the Brink, a US-based grassroots coalition working for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.

Moderator Denise Duffield, a member of the Back from the Brink steering committee as well as associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, engaged in conversation with Jacobsen about her latest book, Nuclear War: A Scenario, for the first part of the event.

Asked about the origins of the book, Jacobsen said, “I began to wonder what happens if deterrence fails. I took that question to my sources, and the result is the book.” Nuclear War: A Scenario is based on dozens of interviews with high-level civilian and military officials.

The policy of nuclear deterrence dates to the Cold War. It supports the idea that the US must build up its arms supply in order to “deter” other countries from attacking.

In reality, say Back from the Brink and other antinuclear advocates, deterrence is a myth. The mere presence of nuclear weapons is an existential threat to humanity, as “equipment failure, accidents, and miscommunication have nearly caused a nuclear war” in the past, as stated on the Back from the Brink website.

“How could deterrence make sense in the world in which we live today?” Jacobsen asked, adding that it is an “insane concept that nuclear war could be fought or even won.”

Additionally, deterrence invests the power to destroy the world in the hands of a single individual who is capable of launching a nuclear strike. If that individual is unstable, misinformed, or impulsive, a civilization that has taken thousands of years to evolve could be obliterated in an instant.

“We can’t let our security be based off of luck,” Duffield emphasized.

Jacobsen said that after decades when the threat of nuclear war had “disappeared from everyone’s minds,” it has returned “front and center in the news” as world leaders are “actually threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

The sources consulted for her book “share an escalating concern” about the threat of nuclear warfare, she said.

Duffield pointed out that increased reportage on the issue, in forums such as the “At the Brink” series introduced in March by the New York Times, show that “we can and should talk plainly about the reality of nuclear war.”

Despite this change in public opinion, nuclear policy has been slow to evolve. Jacobsen identified the military-industrial complex, “a deep-rooted economic power in the United States,” as a major barrier to change.

Organizations, defense contractors, and career individuals continue to perpetuate the cycle of weapons production, or what one source described to Jacobsen as “the self-licking ice cream cone.” Evidence of this is an ongoing 30-year, $1.7 trillion plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, regardless of the danger and records of exorbitant waste in the military budget.

In the second part of the event, Duffield and Jacobsen were joined by panelists Archbishop John Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Dr. Ira Helfand, and Eddie Laiche to continue the discussion.

Archbishop Wester’s pastoral letter, Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation toward Nuclear Disarmament, was issued in 2022. It has since attracted significant attention, with Wester becoming a key spokesperson for the cause of nuclear abolition.

Wester said that Jacobsen’s book “really brought home to me the reality and horror of nuclear war.” He stressed that today’s weapons are more powerful than those that were dropped on Japan in 1945.

“Our leaders don’t have a whole lot of time” to make life-and-death decisions about the use of nuclear weapons, he said. Touching on his personal faith, he added that we should not have “God-like qualities” where we can “destroy so much in so little time.”

Asked by Duffield for advice on how to engage faith communities on the issue of nuclear abolition, Wester replied, “Any religion and any faith is based on relationships—relationship with God and relationship with each other.”

“Your voice is powerful, so don’t ever minimize the power of your voice,” he continued. “Talk to your pastors, rabbis, and imams [and] tell them how concerned you are.”

Wester cited Pope Francis, who has stated that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is “immoral.” By the pope’s own standard, “we have an immoral situation” in the US, Wester said.

“I can’t think of any other issue that is so impactful on all of human life,” he added.

Dr. Helfand, a member of the Back from the Brink steering committee and leader of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said that Jacobsen’s book frightened him, but “if people aren’t afraid of nuclear war, they aren’t going to focus on it.”

Dr. Helfand said that the historic example of the reversal of nuclear policy in the U.S. and Russia between 1983 and 1985 gives him hope for the current movement.

“We stopped the Cold War arms race,” he said. “We’ve done this once before.”

Nuclear abolition used to be dismissed as “a kind of fantasy,” but today there is “a new openness to understanding that we need to do something about this,” he said. “This time, the goal has really got to be the complete elimination of these weapons.”

Laiche is a senior at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, California, and co-founder of the Students for Nuclear Disarmament. While he found Jacobsen’s book “terrifying,” he said that it “encouraged me to continue my efforts.”

Laiche started the Burbank Nuclear Abolition Club at his high school. He coordinated a meeting with Burbank mayor Konstantine Anthony that led to Anthony issuing a proclamation in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons this past December.

“Nuclear weapons threaten our safety by their very existence,” Laiche explained. Getting this message out “will allow more political action to take place.”

Laiche said that high schools and colleges are good places to foster dialogue around the nuclear issue. “It’s going to be a long-term journey toward a world free of nuclear weapons,” he said. “We can support each other.”

Jacobsen expressed optimism in the future of the movement. She invoked president Dwight Eisenhower’s notion of “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” as an antidote to the military-industrial complex.

“Armed with information, people naturally lean forward,” she said.

Dr. Helfand said that since “people living on this planet are going to be affected” by nuclear war, those advocating for abolition are “giving them the information they have a right to know.”

Wester counseled “taking a first step” with a small concrete action toward disarmament, which “dispels fear to some degree.” He explained how the Archdiocese of Santa Fe will be partnering with the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Archdiocese of Nagasaki, and the Diocese of Hiroshima to mark the 80th anniversary of the detonations of the atomic bombs next year.

Asked by an event attendee about the possibility of a coordinated pilgrimage to Japan, Wester called it “a brilliant idea” that would “show support for our Japanese brothers and sisters who still live with the reality of that bomb.” ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.

Banner image: Screen-grab of Back from the Brink event with Annie Jacobsen and others, May 29, 2024.
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