TOM PLATE WRITES — Without becoming too defensive about America at this rocky passage in its political history (well, it is difficult to defend), I nonetheless will offer something of a defense, since almost no one else wants to try, but maybe someone ought to. So we start with this: Whether the current American president’s actions and policies are indefensible or not is not the point. At the worst, President Donald Trump is in office another term but then — he’s out. Does any other superpower offer such term-limited peace of mind? Even so, America is not one person any more than China is one person or even one party.
To be sure, even if the best comes to pass — a one-term Trump presidency — a lot of bad could happen in the year ahead. That’s why many Americans are not letting up. Our civil-society sector is anything but brain dead — and is supported politically as well as financially by many Americans who are well aware of our flaws and the limitations of our government no matter what political party or which politician is at the top.
The average educated American respects more than one secular or political god. I worship several myself, and next week one of them will step into the spotlight for a famous annual ritual that reminds us of both the enduring value of our civil society organizations and the kinds of issues they fearlessly take on. Known as The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and founded by Manhattan Project scientists in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this gold-star non-profit believes we must work dramatically harder to reduce nuclear arsenals curated by arrogant nations that foolishly believe they can have them without thermonuclear accident, much less for intentional usage. The nine nuclear-armed powers are Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and – last but definitely not least – the U.S. Any more coming at us? Iran?
The organization’s trademark is the Doomsday Clock – a mockup of a large wall timepiece set on a display easel. Its dead hands are manually maneuvered, and every year about this time it is re-set, sometimes near or not so very near darkest midnight, to suggest the ever-present potential of nuclear doomsday, and shown to the world. Last January, scientists set the clock at two minutes to midnight; where exactly it will be set this year will be unveiled next week at the ritual of the reset clock in Washington. The VIP list of attendees will include members of The Elders, a high-minded organization started by the late Nelson Mandela – including Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland; Jerry Brown, former governor of California (twice); and Ban Ki-moon, the former UN secretary-general. And on the science side: Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environmental Institute; Robert Rosner, of the Argonne National Laboratory as well as professor in the Departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago; and Robert Latiff, of the University of Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study – and a retired Air Force major general.
Since its birth, the Doomsday Clock (set at 11:53 in 1947) has been reset about two dozen times, each recalibration reflecting updated technical input from its Science and Security Board – and though heartfelt mental fibrillations of scientists reacting to the feel of current world tensions. To illustrate, after the two nuclear superpowers reached significant arms-control agreements, the 1991 clock was set back at a less-nervous 17 minutes to midnight. Today, with those nine over-confident nuclear-armed nations ticking on this planet, don’t be surprised if the clock’s hands wind up near the midnight hour. The fear is not just about the presence of the arsenals or even the insane possibility of their usage but the possibility of technical error or management blunder. Military managers will downplay that idea, as always. But will they always be right? A nuclear accident cannot happen? Ironically, the validity of this annual event never seems vitiated simply because nuclear catastrophe has not occurred
This atomic-scientists-centered issues group (thebulletin.org) is not the only nonprofit, public-interest group to which I contribute an amazingly small amount of money, but it may be the most intellectually issue-robust. Rather than confining its scope to its initial nuclear-doomsday fear, the institution’s remit now includes topics such as disruptive technologies (Artificial Intelligence, etc) and climate change challenges. It insists that precisely because we humans in effect created these potential catastrophes, it is our job to take them on with all commitment and resolve. Accordingly, Australia’s current nightmare prompts it to remind members that the country “is literally burning. It needs leadership that is able to recognize that and act. And it needs voters to hold politicians accountable at the ballot box.”
Accidents can happen, especially when they are not so much pure accidents as familiar byproducts of recurring human imperfection — negligence, risk-denial, corruption. Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 with 176 human beings on board was tragically blown from the sky by an Iranian surface-to-air missile fired off in the evident belief that it had zeroed in on an enemy incoming. But colossally many more people surely will die (and future gene pools poisoned) when similar ‘human error’ is found to be behind a nuclear mistake. Does true nuclear-weapons reform and reduction have to await a true nuclear disaster? This is what the Atomic Scientists have been trying to tell us all these years. So watch their Doomsday Clock next week for a sense of the future. Not all Americans are serious people, but for sure the Bulletin boys and girls are. And they are my America, too.
SCMP contributor Tom Plate, distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of ‘Understanding Doomsday: A Guide for Hawks, Doves and People,’ (1971), an early effort to explain the nuclear arms race to a general audience. The original version of this column appeared earlier this week in the South China Morning Post.