Memorial Day relaxation got an unpleasant jolt with the news that North Korea had set off its second nuclear bomb. The first Korean test, in October 2006, was bad enough — announcing that the totalitarian regime had joined the nuclear club. The second test showed that the tyrannical gang had not backed off from brandishing its nuclear arsenal.
We tend to be ill at ease when contemplating — or even just remembering — nuclear weapons, and journalists are no exceptions. In fact, after putting in a lot of time to assess U.S. media coverage of atomic weaponry, I would say that there has been no greater media failure on any subject.
Nuclear weapons amount to annihilation technology on a scale we simply can’t fathom.
Unfortunately, organized societies — including our own — have often devoted major resources to systematized means of bringing death to large numbers of people. Call it defense, national security or a war machine, the result is the same.
National treasure, skills and even creative genius largely funnel into a military apparatus that must be constantly updated to remain cutting edge. The purposes include “making a killing ” in more than one sense of the phrase.
Nuclear weapons take the process to a vastly different level. Many Americans were among those horrified by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horror came despite the first pronouncements from atop the U.S. government, seeking to justify the instant extermination of huge numbers of civilians in a pair of Japanese cities.
Present at the creation of nuclear-warfare media spin was President Harry Truman, who proclaimed at the outset: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” In fact, Hiroshima was no more a “military base” on Aug. 6, 1945, than Hartford or Baltimore or Oakland are today.
That sort of presidential candor on the subject of American nuclear weapons was indicative of what followed. Until the early 1960s, frequent U.S. atmospheric nuclear bomb tests exposed an estimated 300,000 military personnel — and uncounted civilian down winders — to the radioactive explosions at close range. In some cases the health effects were severe, but decade after decade the U.S. government denied responsibility.
Today, Uncle Sam is the leader of the nuclear club. Other longtime nuclear powers — Russia, France, Britain and China — have left their own legacies of horrific damage to people and the environment due to nuclear testing. More recently, Israel, India and Pakistan have joined up. Inevitably, the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to atomic waste, continues to inflict untold damage on ecosystems.
Longtime nuclear club members don’t look kindly on new entrants and aspirants. There is understandable horror that many people feel as yet another countr y — this time the North Korean regime — flexes its terrible capacities to bring about nuclear destruction. But that sensible horror is augmented by a reflexive hypocrisy as the U.S. media carefully point fingers only away from Washington.
Thirty years ago, on assignment
for The Progressive
magazine, I visited the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. was setting off nuclear weapons — underground at that point — at an average rate of once every three weeks
An old hand at nuclear testing asked me to turn off my tape recorder. When I complied, he said: “No head of state, in the world, has ever seen a nuclear bomb explosion. To me, that ‘s scary. I don’t think anyone who has ever seen a nuclear explosion has ever not asked the question ‘My God, what have we done?'”
©2009 Creators Syndicate, Inc.