I was texting with a friend shortly after the news broke that North Korea was proposing that it just might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. This, of course, came shortly after our own President's suggestion that he might "totally destroy" another society. Both of us, my friend and I, were wrestling with much the same question. Wait a minute -- we thought -- could something like a nuclear war actually happen? I mean, really? For all the bombastic world-weary pessimism I affect on this blog, my answer of course was no. Beneath it all, my doubts about the future are paper-thin. I may obsessively fear the worst. I may plan for it. But I don't really expect it. Perhaps I believe that by maintaining my intensity of fear I am actively preventing it. Every time I'm in the vicinity of Yellowstone, say, at least ten percent of my mind is trained on the seething caldera under my feet, and wondering when it will go off. But I'd be as surprised as anyone if it actually did.
My friend and I both ultimately concluded that there totally would not be a nuclear war -- unless there was. We decided that we both knew this scenario was implausible -- unless we just thought it was implausible because it hadn't happened yet. That's about as definite as we could be. While recognizing intellectually that we had very little reason to feel safe, we did nevertheless. And we are not the first. Speaking in the voice of his Jesuit protagonist in Silence, who is living amidst the constant daily threat of capture and execution, Shusaku Endo makes a resonant observation: "Man is a strange being. He always has a feeling somewhere in his heart that whatever the danger he will pull through." (Johnston trans.) Buzz, the obnoxious older brother in Home Alone, evidently believes the same. He captures something of this widely shared sentiment when he tells his siblings not to worry, because: "we live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period." Which always struck me as a pretty accurate impression of life, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
For the past few weeks, it has seemed that our news media in general has adopted Buzz's axiom. There is no sign thus far of that chafe and jar/ of nuclear war that Robert Lowell wrote of around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, we have been amusing ourselves with "rocket man" and the etymology of the word "dotard," which every major newspaper seemed compelled to define for us -- frequently as a front page news item. "There was another escalation of the war of words today between the President and North Korea," said the anchor on NPR, or something to that effect. Which is true enough, but can we also stay focused just a little bit longer, please, on the threat of nuclear annihilation? Our president may have called Kim a "rocket man" -- I guess Stephen Miller or whoever remembers that Economist cover from way back -- but he also, more distressingly, said he would not balk at "totally destroying" a whole country, all the people in it, an ancient culture and civilization.
That, of course, is a proposal of genocide. When Secretary Mattis hinted at something similar last month, I had to wrestle a bit with his wording. President Trump's words require no such excavation. "Totally destroy North Korea" has only one interpretation. And not to go all Chomsky Method here, but can you imagine if the positions had been reversed? If another world leader had openly floated the possibility of destroying all of the United States, and everyone in it? This is not to throw any bone now or ever to the regime in Pyongyang (they are the worst enemies too to the people Trump is proposing to liquidate in a nuclear holocaust), but can we please pause and take note of the obvious double standard here? And can we observe that what Trump said is way worse than anything North Korea said in this particular "war of words"? And can we reflect too on the fact that North Korean propaganda (such as the bizarrely twisted Squirrel and Hedgehog cartoons that were somehow leaked from the country-- available now for your viewing nausea on YouTube) portrays Americans as wolves who staff a Galactic Empire hell-bent on the destruction of North Korea? This caricature comes closer to reality when our President suggests doing to their country what Tarkin did to Alderaan.
A minister at an event I attended recently shared a reflection on these recent events from Rabbi Arthur Waskow that reads in part: "Yesterday the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth spoke before the assembled nations of the world: 'The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.' [...] 'Totally destroy.' A nation is a label for millions of people. Men, women, children. Laughing, weeping, making love, building homes, scanning smart-phones, eating breakfast. Millions obliterated, turned to smoke and ashes." Oh, right. However often threats of nuclear destruction are made, or however implicit they may be in the structure of our atomic geopolitics, the ability to keep this extraordinary and obvious truth in mind is essential. We have to try never to lose the capacity to be surprised when the leader of a still-avowedly democratic nation idly proposes the destruction of an entire race, nation, and people.
But, as I say, I generally fail to do so. Like you, I live my life on the basis of Buzz's axiom. Nothing remotely dangerous -- or interesting -- will ever happen. Period. Until it does.