Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Controlling Trump and Nukes: Time for Congress (and Citizens!) to Step Up

Something we can all agree on:
HR.669/S.200 - "To prohibit the conduct of a first-use
nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress."
(Please share this message on Twitter.)

Congressman Ted Lieu (CA-33) and Senator Ed Markey (MA) have re-introduced their bill HR.669/S.200 to prohibit the president from carrying out a nuclear first strike without express authorization via a declaration of war by Congress.

HOUSE: HR. 669 - "To prohibit the conduct of a first-use nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress."

SENATE: S. 200 - "To prohibit the conduct of a first-use nuclear strike absent a declaration of war by Congress."

Already, there are over 50 co-sponsors of this bill. (You can watch the press conference for the bill's re-introduction on Facebook.) More co-sponsors are needed.

Why not use this opportunity to begin a relationship with your representative in Congress, and your senators? If they are already sponsors of HR.669/S.200, thank them! If not, encourage them to do so! (See up-to-date lists of: House co-sponsors ... Senate co-sponsors ... )

And then let it be the being of an ongoing, in-depth conversation between you and your elected representatives about the gravest risk facing us today.

For far too long, Congress (and the citizenry) have been out of the loop when it comes to US nuclear weapons policy and practice; this bill gets them back in control.  (And gets us back in control!)

This isn't the last bill that will be required in order to make all of us safe from nuclear weapons; rather it is the first step in an engaged Congress and engaged citizenry tackling nuclear weapons danger once and for all.

Related posts

Nuclear Weapons: People Power Over Trump Power

"Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Is "North Korea" a Two-Word "Scissor Statement"?

I'm glad that Donald Trump is negotiating with Kim Jong-un about denuclearization -- including the inevitable reckoning over what "denuclearization" means. However, as a next round of negotiations about peace in Korea and denuclearization are pending, there is a dilemma that is much on my mind:

Right now, is it more important to do the (very necessary, long-term) work of debunking US prejudice surrounding Korea in general, and North Korea in particular?

Or is the best use of our time and effort to defer -- for the moment -- getting people to reform their thinking about Korea, and instead emphasizing the need to treat the overall nuclear weapons risk with the urgency called for?

Last spring, I devoted much time to writing about the need to overcome US prejudices surrounding Korea. (Links to posts listed below.)

And since last spring, there's been a little progress in the US media and other areas of foreign affairs discourse towards rational discussion of Korea. But just a little. This is the point driven home by an excellent article in The Nation: "US-North Korea Talks Are Moving Decisively to the Diplomatic Phase" by Tim Shorrock.

V @christineahn on Twitter
Naming it: orientalism and jingoism with respect to Korea.

And this dilemma is of some moment, since "North Korea" seems to claim a plurality of the mindshare when people think about (or attempt to think about) nuclear weapons risk. I was reminded of this disproportion reading Michael Lewis' new book, The Fifth Risk. When queried about what we should be worried about, the former Chief Risk Officer at the Department of Energy listed:

(1) Broken arrows (nuclear weapons that get out of control)
(2) North Korea
(3) Iran
(4) Attacks on the electrical grid
(5) Problems with Big Project Management (e.g. Hanford clean-up)

North Korea as the number two worry? That's a pretty big share of worry assigned to a pretty small proportion of the global nuclear weapons threat. A June, 2018, tally of 14,450 nuclear warheads worldwide attributes only 10 to 20 to North Korea:

June 2018 global nuclear warhead count
(each symbol representing FIVE weapons):
Russia: 6,850
US: 6,450
France: 300
China: 270
UK: 215
Pakistan: 140
India: 120 to 130
Israel: 80
North Korea: 10 to 20
(Source: Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University)

The US and Russia each have at least 300 times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea.

So is it really possible that North Korea is a greater threat to the US than the US is to itself?

I recently learned about the concept of a "scissor statement" -- one that immediately serves to divide people into opposing camps. A scissor statement is so divisive that people stop thinking and stop communicating, and once that happens it is mighty difficult to work cooperatively. The concept is ably described by Scott Alexander in his piece "Sort By Controversial".

To me, it seems likely that "North Korea" is a sort of two-word "scissor statement." And just think what happens when it is combined with another two-word scissor statement -- "Donald Trump." Are we at risk of getting derailed before the conversation can even get started?

I am concerned that we need to do much more to get discussions about nuclear disarmament out of the weeds of disagreeing over "possible scenarios" and into the area of common sense -- that nuclear weapons pose a one-of-a-kind risk, one whose consequences truly threaten to end our world, and whose likelihood is practically unknowable (but certainly real). Maybe a good rule of thumb would be focusing 90% of our dialogue on that core danger, and only then -- possibly -- giving over some portion of our dialog into trying to revise US conventional wisdom (bias, prejudice) about specific contexts like Korea.

I trust I will be having many conversations with colleagues about this in the days ahead . . . .

Post about Korea on Scarry Thoughts

Korea: A History of Living Under Nuclear Terror

The Cynical American Scapegoating of Korea as a Cover for Nuclear Terror

Media analysis series:
A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.
Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?
When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"
The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret
North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

#Nuclearban Game-Changer: South Korea?

North Korea and #NuclearBan

Who Has Been "Begging for War"?

Is Kim Jong-un giving the US its "Suez Crisis"?

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: "Korea's Place in the Sun" by Bruce Cumings

Monday, January 21, 2019

Nuclear Disarmament: "It's time. Let's do this thing . . . . "

"What has this to do with you? or with me?"
Based on John 2:1-11. (Image: Joe Scarry)

Madeline Island is my place to focus on the problem of nuclear disarmament.

One of the ways I'm hoping to do that is by way of more graphic/visual materials. Perhaps I will create a memoir in graphic novel format.

I now try to put pencil to sketch pad every single day. The more I draw, the more I remember; and the more I remember, the more I realize how the problem of nuclear weapons has been woven into my experience, from the time I was a little boy in the '60s.

Yesterday I got an idea for a unifying concept, and a possible cover.

My partner, Rachel, preached her first sermon as pastor of St. John's Church of Madeline Island. She spoke about the day's lectionary text - Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Rachel asked us to pay attention not just to what Jesus did in that story, but also to the role of Mary. Mary was the one who said, in effect, "It's time. Let's do this thing . . . . " Rachel asked us to notice that it really all started with Mary; without that push from Mary, all we are left with is "divine reluctance."

I woke up this morning and realized that one of the many areas of life that this applies to is humanity's confrontation with nuclear weapons. Our reaction to this monumental threat is so very much characterized by distancing . . . reluctance . . . dis-engagement. "Too much to think about . . . let's talk about something else . . . . " And that resonated with my own experience

What would happen if some people could successfully say, with respect to the urgent need for nuclear disarmament, "It's time. Let's do this thing . . . . " ? What would happen if enough people said it that there was no room left anymore for, ""What has this to do with you? or with me?"

You can watch Rachel's January 20 sermon on the St. John's Madeline Island Ustream channel. (Her sermon begins at minute 21:50.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons Risk?

For citizens to meaningfully participate in eliminating nuclear weapons, there are a number of conversations we need to be prepared to have -- with our associates in the community, and with our representatives in government.

It seems to me that at the top of the list is a conversation about risk.

We tend not to be very good at thinking about risk. Perhaps the canonical example of our difficulty is contained in the question, "What is more dangerous -- flying or driving?" People tend to think of flying as more dangerous, but statistically, per mile traveled, driving is far more dangerous. (Coincidentally, today's New York Times summarizes an updated guide to everyday risks: "Opioids, Car Crashes and Falling: The Odds of Dying in the U.S.")

Two observations:

(1) Many risks -- such as those just mentioned -- represent frequently occurring events. There are specialists (actuaries) who tabulate past occurrences and calculate odds of future occurrences. They provide the basis for the insurance industry.

(2) Even such well-documented and well-described risks are generally met by ordinary people with a very human response: "Great, now can I put this out of my mind?"

In the spectrum of risks, there is another kind of risk: the non-frequently occurring event. To tear an example from today's headlines, what is the risk that a non-politician will be elected president of the US, and then force a government shutdown in order to obtain appropriations for building a wall on the US border with Mexico?

You can venture guesstimates of the likelihood, but there if very little prior information upon which to base them.

(The term "black swan" was recently popularized for the extreme form of such a non-frequently occurring event: something that nobody saw coming.)

Two more observations:

(3) Without actuarial analysis, it is not possible to insure against these kinds of risks in the ordinary way. Still, there are people (risk managers) who do their best to try to make guesstimates of the odds, and to come up with (cost-justified) ways of avoiding such risks.

(4) These kinds of events are particularly susceptible to the natural human response: "I don't have to think about this, do I?"

It was this second type of risk that I focused on when I wrote about the example of a piece of a church facade falling and striking a pedestrian. That example helped me understand how, in advance of an event, it may seem hard to justify devoting a lot of resources to worrying about it; but after the event occurs, its importance becomes all too clear and unavoidable.

How might this be helpful in informing conversations about nuclear weapons risk? Well, it does seem helpful to recognize that nuclear weapons risk is more like the second category of non-frequently occurring event, and less like the category of frequently occurring, actuarial, insurable risks.

But in another sense, we are still not there yet. The truth came home to me the other night when I watched the Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.  In it, McNamara stresses the point, "With nuclear weapons, there's no learning period." In other words, if and when nuclear weapons are used, there will be no second chance.

This led to an epiphany for me: nuclear weapons risk does not occupy a place within the spectrum of all other risks. It occupies its own unique place. Yes, it is like the other non-frequently occurring events, but it is also different in an important way: the consequences are world-ending. (There was a time when it was fashionable to talk about surviving nuclear war -- contemplating a range of "tragic but distinguishable postwar states" -- but most people have now shed that illusion.)

So: what to do about this unique risk?

*   *   *

It seems to me that the peculiar feature of this risk is that the consequences are so outsized that they obviate any value in trying to suss out the likelihood. For once, we can all agree that something is unknowable.

For instance, I may believe that, under the current circumstances, nuclear war could happen in the next ten years. Another person may believe it could very well happen within one year. Yet a third might say, "The best estimate is that there will be one occurrence in 1,000 years."

But the magnitude of the consequences should make it possible for us to set aside our different guesstimates and focus on the intolerability of the outcome.

(And -- funny thing -- once we set aside our guesstimates it becomes possible to admit to ourselves how little confidence we can have in anyone's assurances about the likelihood/unlikelihood of nuclear war.)

Truly, this is unlike any other risk.

*   *   *

By the way, it might help if this unique risk had a name. For now, I will call it Kappa Risk (like the Greek letter K).

Think of it as the apex or "cap" -- the most outstanding of all risks.

K also happens to be the first letter in Καιρός (Kairos or Caerus), the Greek god of risk.

(Greek letters are used heavily in risk management, though K does not (yet) have a prominent role.)

*   *   *

I guess there is the problem of what to do about people who think there is zero probability of nuclear weapons actually being used -- "It will never happen." In other words, people who believe Kappa Risk doesn't exist.

Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

*   *   *

Even better than a name for this type of risk, I suppose, would be a picture or symbol. If 2018 has taught me anything, it is that an emoji is worth a thousand words.

How to sum up visually the idea of a one-of-a-kind risk, one whose consequences truly threaten to end our world, and whose likelihood is practically unknowable (but certainly real)? Something short and sweet -- representing the need to put this risk squarely on the table and then more forward to eliminate it?

Herewith, a proposal:

Design for an emoji: Kappa Risk.
(The one-of-a-kind risk that characterizes nuclear weapons -
consequences that truly threaten to end our world, and
likelihood that is practically unknowable (but certainly real).)
(Image: Joe Scarry)

(With apologies to The Emoji Movie.)

Now: in what ways might we be able to better accomplish our work as citizens once we can converse clearly about the singular risk of nuclear weapons?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Hawaii Alert: What Have We Learned?

"Let's play a game . . . . "
(Image: Joe Scarry)

One year ago tomorrow, people in Hawaii were subjected to a warning that missiles were incoming.

Have we learned anything from that experience? I have tried to hear about the experiences of people who were there that day, and I have suggested that there should be a broad-based effort to do so.

Of the stories that I have heard, this is the one I just can't get out of my mind: A mother and father were at home with their little boy. They realized there was no safe place in the house to take shelter, and that the best they could do was to get in the innermost part of the house, get down on the floor, and try to shield their son with their own bodies. And so for the duration of the alert they formed a tight ball, telling their son that they were playing a game, and the point of the game was to cover every single part of his body with their bodies, so not a single part was showing.

That posture -- in a tight embrace with our beloveds, waiting for the end, accepting our own fate and yet hoping for a better fate for someone else -- seems to me very symbolic of where we have ended up in this nuclear weapons-dominated world.

I wonder: if we confronted what we have really been reduced to, might it help us stand up and demand a change?

Related posts: 

"Dawn of a new Armageddon" by Cynthia Lazaroff in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"Nuclear False Alarm Shows Why State Politics Are Not Enough" by Emma Claire Foley on Beyond the Bomb website.

"Mourning Armageddon" music video by Makana - "As one of over a million people in Hawai'i who were told on January 13, 2018 that they were about to be hit by a nuclear missile, renowned Hawai’i artist Makana said, 'Waking to an alert of a nuclear attack in Hawai’i got me thinking. Why is this even a possibility?'"

Trailer for film project "False Alarm" - "False Alarm takes a look at the diverse reactions to the surreal and traumatic morning when families, soldiers, tourists, and every person on Hawaii was forced to confront an unthinkable reality—an incoming nuclear missile. More than that, it explores the psychological reasons why this false disaster - which so dramatizes many faults in our current systems – may succeed or fail to inspire us to create a different future."

See also:

The Children Are Waiting

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brief Encounter: The Nuclear Sponge

The corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet hosts
150 Minuteman-III nuclear missiles, 50 each in the 319th, 320th,
and 321st Missile Squadrons of the USAF 90th Missile Wing, based
at Francis E. Warren AFB, just west of Cheyenne, WY. The missile
silos surround a 100-mile stretch of Rt. 80. (Sketch: Joe Scarry)

Speaking of the long drive from the Bay Area to Madeline Island . . . our route took us through one of three missile fields where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are based in the US.

There are three areas where US land-based nuclear missiles are based, each with about 150 missiles: Montana, South Dakota, and the corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet. Our trip took us through the last of these.

The missiles are in silos underground, so there is not much to see as you speed along Rt. 80. One might even wonder if the people who live in the area even know they're there.

Luckily, we had the perfect audiobook for the drive: The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland, by Gretchen Heefner. Heefner's book focuses on the first phase of nuclear missiles being brought to the region, beginning in the '60s. Anyone who wants to know about public engagement (and dis-engagement) around the issue of nuclear weapons will want to study this work carefully.

The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in
the American Heartland
, by Gretchen Heefner
Here's one small facet of the story: the strategy behind installing the missiles in these locations is referred to as the "nuclear sponge." The thinking goes like this: in the event of all-out nuclear war, an adversary would need to expend a large part of its arsenal attempting to destroy the US missile silos. The vast areas of Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado containing 450 widely spaced missile silos would serve to "soak up" a big part of the nuclear force aimed at the US. Every incoming missile soaked up by the "sponge" would be one less headed for Chicago or San Francisco.

(A technical note: currently, those 450 Minuteman-III missiles are each topped with three W78 warheads. The explosive power of a single W78 is believed to be in the range of 335-350 kilotons, or something over 20 times the size of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That means the destructive power of Minuteman-III missiles spread across Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado is about 27,000 Hiroshimas.)

What did (and do) people in these plains states think about being part of the nuclear sponge? And about the 27,000-Hiroshima arsenal nestled amidst their fields and pastures? Heefner's book gives some answers; a lot more are needed.

My brief encounter with the Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado nuclear sponge gave me a chance to consider some difficult questions. Is it possible that the missile fields will never experience an attack? and/or never have an accident? Perhaps everything's going to be okay? Perhaps I should just sit back and enjoy the scenery? . . . and/but . . . What if . . . ? What if the thing that everyone hopes (expects, assumes) won't really happen . . . really does happen?

Monday, January 7, 2019

One Thing: the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

Lake Superior and the mainland of Wisconsin,
viewed from the south side of Madeline Island.

It is 2019 and I have come to live on Madeline Island.

My hope is that I will be able to use my time here to make progress on the problem that has come to seem to me more urgent than any other: the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is so easy to be distracted, and, heaven knows, one would like to think about anything else . . . .

But there is less excuse for getting distracted in Madeline Island. Maybe I can make a little progress every day.

*   *   *   *   *   

I am heartened by one fact: during the 115th Congress (2017-2018) a bill to restrict the US president's ability to use nuclear weapons obtained the support of 82 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 13 co-sponsors in the Senate. (See: H.R.669 - Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 and corresponding Senate bill S. 200.)

Here's a chart I made showing the growth of that support month-by-month:

Growth of support for HR.669
Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017

There was support for the bill across the country -- although by far the strongest support was on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor.

*   *   *   *   *   

Eliminating nuclear weapons: more urgent than any other problem. What if all 535 US senators and representatives decided to take on this challenge?

And -- perhaps more importantly -- what if citizens in each of their states and districts became those senators' and representatives' dedicated collaborators in accomplishing this?

I have always believed that constituents had a role to play in influencing action in Congress. But as our departure for Madeline Island neared, I began to think much more deeply about what that role might look like. To put it bluntly: might citizens be co-problem-solvers together with the people serving in Congress, and with their staff? Might there be value in conversation and relationship that goes far beyond ordinary "issue advocacy"? -- especially on a problem of such an existential character?

*   *   *   *   *   

It's been a long week: California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and finally Wisconsin. Now it's time to rest.

There will be time to talk more about citizenship tomorrow.