But How Do You Use Nonviolence Against a Nuke?

Some of the most misguided questions ever conceived by the human brain take the form of “But how do you use nonviolence against . . . ?”

For example, fill in the blank with ISIS. How do you use nonviolence against ISIS?

Now you’re supposed to picture yourself with a knife at your throat trying to resist it nonviolently. Then you’re supposed to burst into a fit of laughter.

But how would you resist that knife violently? A superhuman feat of martial arts seems at least as unlikely to work as speaking.

But actually possible before the knife arrives at your throat at all are such nonviolent actions as: ceasing to arm ISIS allies, ceasing to allow U.S. allies to fund ISIS, ceasing to inspire ISIS recruiting by bombing people and propping up brutal governments, ceasing to destabilize countries by overthrowing governments, negotiating an arms embargo, negotiating a cease fire, providing actual humanitarian aid on an appropriate scale, opening borders to refugees, investing in efforts to halt climate chaos, strengthening the rule of law by example, kick starting a reverse arms race, abolishing weapons of mass destruction, and — of course — using all the tools of nonviolence as an individual to create these policies.

Or fill in the blank with Vladimir Putin. Now you’re supposed to imagine some mash up of Vladimir coming at you in a wrestling match, Russian jets flying along the border of Russia thousands of miles away from the United States, and a nuclear bomb landing on your roof. Then you’re supposed to burst into a fit of patriotic singing.

But how would you resist Vladimir Putin violently? He’s not really wrestling you. Attacking Russian planes might provoke an actual attack by the Russian military, and shooting at the nuke as it comes through the ceiling isn’t likely to de-activate it. But actually possible steps that would help include: abolishing NATO, negotiating disarmament agreements, ending foreign wars, closing foreign bases, strengthening the rule of law by example, etc.

My favorite, however, is: “But How Do You Use Nonviolence Against a Nuke?” For this one, we don’t need to invent or speculate. We can simply reply: Learn the actions of Michael Walli, Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed, and go forth and do likewise. There are thousands of other answers as well. You can lobby for the 2017 treaty to ban nuclear weapons. You can push for divestment from nuclear weapons. You can teach history. You can write articles like this one. But a central answer should be: Do something like Walli, Rice, and Boertje-Obed are doing.

The actions of those three are the main focus of a new book by Dan Zak called Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. The book reviews useful history of the development of the bomb and of resistance to it including the Catholic Worker movement, of nuclear testing and human experimentation, and of recent developments in disarmament, armament, and activism. But the book takes as its starting point the nonviolent plowshares action that Michael, Megan (pronounced MEE-gan), and Greg took part in on July 28, 2012, at the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Their action clearly has already inspired this book, as well as much other reporting, and much other activism — with, I hope, a lot more to come.

These three activists made their way through the surrounding woods and a number of fences into the heart of the Y-12 facility undetected. They painted graffiti peace messages, spilled blood, and protested the creation of nuclear weapons. That they were elderly and one of them a nun was the overwhelming focus of the resulting media coverage. That the United States has nuclear facilities being run by utterly incompetent private companies living high off the tax dollar hog but endangering the globe was a secondary but important focus as well. The sensible guard who avoided escalating the situation was scapegoated and fired. Supposedly changes have been made now so that giant piles of bomb-ready uranium are guarded with at least some fraction of the care devoted to harassing you before you board an airplane.

Michael, Megan, and Greg were put on trial for sabotage or what the judge called a “federal crime of terrorism.” They were convicted, imprisoned, and released when that verdict was later overturned. They have promised to continue their activism.

Meanwhile, the book they inspired offers a rich history of which we should all be aware.

Did you know that high school girls preparing the infernos for Hiroshima and Nagasaki were told and presumably believed that they were manufacturing ice cream?

Did you know that Oak Ridge employed over 22,000 people when FDR died and Germany surrendered, and that sheer bureaucratic momentum blocked any consideration of halting the creation of a nuclear bomb?

Zak’s book includes gems from the Berrigans’ and allies’ poetry: “We wish also to challenge the lethal lie spun by G.E. through its motto, ‘We bring good things to life.’ As manufacturers of the Mark 12A re-entry vehicle, G.E. actually prepares to bring good things to death.”

Only occasionally does the author’s background as a Washington Post reporter (as opposed to a member of the peace movement he writes about) come through. For example, he recounts a moment when “opposition to the Vietnam war was reaching its ugly peak.” He repeatedly suggests that Vladimir Putin has single-handedly restarted the Cold War without any contribution from the U.S. government or NATO. He claims that North Korea has been “led by a succession of madmen.” And his reporting in six different places on the views of others as to whether the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was actually needed to end the war would have benefitted from the addition of his own voice on the matter (presuming him to know that the bombing was not needed).

Still, this is a wonderful book inspired by even more wonderful activism. We should have more of both.

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