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Living Death: The Eternal Now of HiroshimaWednesday, 06 August 2008
Picture from The Hiroshima Panels by Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi
The nuclear age is indeed a catastrophe in slow motion. Given all that we know of human nature, it is almost inconceivable that these monstrous weapons will not be used again.
I once shared an office for a time with a Japanese scientist from Hiroshima. It was a strange setting for such an association: we were working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), where the atomic bomb that obliterated my colleague's city -- 63 years ago today -- was fashioned.
He never mentioned the bombing; he was too young to have experienced it himself, although some of his family certainly would have. I sometimes felt a bit awkward in his presence, as if I should say something about it, make some kind of apology. But what could you say? "Oh, sorry we destroyed your city and killed all those people in such a gruesome way when we really didn't have to. Hey, could you pass me that stapler?" Ridiculous. Pointless.
In any case, we had a good time, a lot of laughs, during the months he was there, along with our other officemate, an American scientist who had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and had been sentenced to do public service for refusing to fight. He spent most of the war working in a juvenile detention center for troubled Native American adolescents somewhere in the Dakotas. Politics was a constant theme of our conversations, especially during that period: it was the time of the first war against Iraq, which, like the current one, had been the product of cynical manipulations, rank propaganda and outright deceit by national leaders named Bush and Cheney.
ORNL itself was a sprawling, labyrinthine complex, something like an college campus -- albeit one surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards -- which was in turn part of a much larger complex of laboratories and huge technical facilities scattered throughout that rural area of East Tennessee, all of which had contributed to the creation of the bomb. During World War II, the federal government had constructed not only the secret laboratories but an entire secret city, Oak Ridge, to house the tens of thousands of scientists, technicians and laborers. My grandfather had helped build the housing there. He was a carpenter in Middle Tennessee, one of thousands of workers requisitioned into service by the government. He spent months building the secret city, returning home only on weekends, and was strictly forbidden to tell his family where he was working or what he was doing.
By my day, all weapons production long ceased, and the complexes had been turned into research facilities in a variety of areas. When I was there, as a technical editor, I worked on projects dealing with global warming, energy conservation, transportation and artificial intelligence. I also worked with a remarkable scientist who wanted to set up a new "Court of the Generations," a kind of Supreme Court that would consider the effects of current policies -- particularly technological and scientific developments -- on future generations, and act as an advocate for them. I helped prepare his presentation to Congress on the matter. Obviously, the idea went nowhere: Future generations? Are you kidding? Who cares? Or as George W. Bush once put it so eloquently: "History? We don't know. We'll all be dead." Still, it was an intriguing idea: one that might have come in handy during the early days of the laboratory, in the feverish rush to build -- and use -- atomic weapons.
Here too, amidst all the secrecy and feverish activity, there was deceit and manipulation at work. As John Pilger notes in a blistering article in the Guardian on the anniversary of Hiroshima's destruction, the stated justifications for using this horrific weapon on a civilian population have all been exposed as deliberate falsehoods. Pilger writes:
Pilger then concludes:
The fate of Hiroshima is still with us, like those shadows of the victims permanently burned into the stones of the city by the flash of the bomb, as Pilger describes at the beginning of his article. It affects not only the survivors of that first blast, and their descendants, like my Oak Ridge colleague, but all of us. Several generations, including mine, were brought up with the threat of imminent nuclear destruction constantly pressed upon us, as Gregory McNamee describes in his book, Blue Mountains Far Away. (The relevant chapter can be found here). The manufactured crisis with Iran has brought a little something of that anxiety-riddled atmosphere back to public consciousness -- and, as Pilger notes, the Terror War has made the possibility of another American use of nuclear weapons on defenseless citizens in a non-nuclear country far more likely.
The Atomic Age ushered in by the attack on Hiroshima has produced a kind of quantum-state apocalypse, one that is both here and not-here, but which can be actuated at any moment. McNamee quotes a passage from Susan Sontag that aptly sums up our strange and warping state of being:
The nuclear age is indeed a catastrophe in slow motion. Given all that we know of human nature, it is almost inconceivable that these monstrous weapons will not be used again, either individually, as against Japan, or en masse, as in the fearsome Cold War scenarios. It all began in Hiroshima 63 years ago, but that horrible moment -- the searing flash and the poison wind -- has not yet ended; the slow-motion catastrophe is still unfolding, inside us and all around us.
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published on August 7, 2008.
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