On October 23, 1963, exactly at 22:52 in Washington, the evil genie coming out of the magical lamp of Einstein, Oppenheimer and Fermi seemed to rise to swallow those who had first unleashed it towards Hiroshima. When Kruschev’s telegram announced that any interference against Soviet ships due Cuba would have been considered as a declaration of war, Pierre Salinger – Kennedy’s spokesman – said that they went home carrying in their pockets the cards to enter the anti-atomic secret caverns, persuaded that that would have been the last night of a world as they knew it.
That time the genius of the nuclear holocaust was curbed by sensibility; and the fear that had accompanied the childhood and life of a generation of Americans vanished. This was the fear that had followed Americans – to school, in daily life, in factories, in buildings of offices marked by the symbols of useless shelters fading away everywhere in America – who thought they had beat, once and forever, the scenario of “Doctor Strangelove.”
Now that generation will have to explain to their children that real demons created by humans, like vampires imagined in legends, never really die. They come back, with different faces, different names, a grotesque look like the caricatures of the tormentor of North Koreans, Kim Jong-il; or of the furious demagogue of theocratic Iran, Ahmadinejad. It doesn’t matter how laughable weapons and arsenals of the tragic Korean clown might seem, or how uncertain the actual intentions of the Iranian puppet of Tehran puppeteers are. The resurrection of the fear of the fears, with its promise of “the end of the world,” is just the obvious demonstration that what has been invented can’t be destroyed. And the devil that the U.S., Russia, France and Great Britain thought they had closed off with treaties for non-nuclear proliferation wanders undisturbed in the world, like a temptation of power which few can resist.
Even if today’s fear doesn’t have the creepy, paternal face of Stalin, or the peasant look of Kruschev, it still reflects – in the fragments of the shattered nuclear mirror – the dozens of sorcerer’s apprentices who contemplate themselves in it. Iran and Korea are the vampires of this new edition of the “last resort fear,” mostly for those who could be under the fire of rockets: like Japan, Israel or the entire Middle East. But the very shady heart of new terror is that it is Pakistan that has the means, the capacity, the vectors, to launch an attack. Down there, Taliban vanguards march, and they’re a few kilometers far from the capital where a nominal and biased government staggers in its impotence. In nations like Pakistan, where the spread of atomic secrets sold to the best buyers by material scientists began, the new fear of the bomb has the scariest image.
In the hours of that October, 36 years ago, Kennedy and Kruschev unofficially exchanged telegrams rather than sensibility (since they still didn’t have the legendary “red telephone,” a telex, actually). At the same time, it was the reasonable certainty of the “MAD” (a perfect acronym which means “crazy”, but also stands for “Mutual Assured Destruction,” that every attack would have backfired against those who had launched it, assuring a terrible retaliation), to make simply absurd the very concept of “victory.” The paradox that emerged then, even in popular and graceful movies like “War Games” and in theoretical exercises of strategists, was that a nuclear war couldn’t be won, neither when the devil came to birth again in the ‘70s, in guide systems more and more precise; and in “theatre” bombs, smaller, therefore capable of destroying a city without canceling an entire nation.
Again, in the ‘80s, the balance between the notorious and almost forgotten Soviet SS20 and 21, and the American Cruises and Pershings, was restored; they stirred the last wave of fear, that of a “confined conflict,” brought on by the two blinded Cyclopes within the borders of Europe. Even the last telex between the Kremlin and the Oval Office was put in the attic, depriving the world of one of the main sources for anti-soviet and anti-American jokes, those that telex users would exchange to verify that the line was working.
This race to reciprocal, multiple destruction was so openly senseless; so obscene the hypothesis of a neutron bomb – capable of smashing life without demolishing buildings (never used) – therefore able to make the “last resort” scenario true. So tragic and ridiculous was the maintenance of arsenals able to destroy the world six times – according to the astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s deliberately absurd calculus (as though you could kill someone six times) – that even Ronald Reagan, the great crusader against the empire of the evil, and dreamer of space fortresses, had his epiphany. He converted to the “zero option,” when he surprised Mikhail Gorbachev, and also his own generals and ministers, by proposing Moscow – in a small, white house in Rejkjavik – the nuclear “zero–zero.” This would be the total demolition of both arsenals.
It didn’t happen, and couldn’t happen, because in the meantime the lamp genie had reached South Africa, Israel (that pretended to deny it), China, India, Pakistan, not to mention the two authorized nations, France and Great Britain. But that gesture by Reagan, and after that, the collapse of Soviet Union, had turned off the fear in the American conscience, that fear that had accompanied the children of the bomb born and grown up after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No longer, because the new sorcerer’s apprentices unfortunately don’t have the “fear of fear.”
This future seems still distant, since Iran and Korea are nowadays far from those launch vectors for their future atomic weapons, whose strategic utility is entirely up to the means of transport. We won’t again see elementary school and kindergarten American children taught by teachers on how to hide under desks to protect themselves from a nuclear deflagration – just a useless exercise, like the shelters built and sold to good family fathers who would dig them in the backyard, to give them the feeling that they were “doing something.” This was despite the fact that the experts, first of all doctors, kept on repeating that surviving an exchange of bombs of many megatons – each of at least a trillion tons of trinitrotoluene – was an oxymoron, a contradiction, and the luckiest one would be the first to die, like the Enola Gay facts had proved.
But we won’t come back to the self-blocking gear of the “MAD,” the Mutual Assured Destruction, either; the reciprocal, certain destruction, and “the balance of terror” – because no military, political, or wishful balance is possible between the new sorcerer’s apprentices of Hiroshima, and the United States, Russia or China. The crisis of Cuba made both Americans and Russian think about the devastating irrationality of their race towards nuclear weapons, because it made the banal instinct for survival click even in politicians who strongly believed in that ideology.
But if the new Strangelove doctors who own the weapon of “the end of the world” should appoint the bomb to martyrdom and self-destruction in a final Armageddon, what deterrence could be possible? The script of the new fear that is slowly overlapping and planting the seed together with the terrorist aggression – still awfully rudimentary like 9/11 or the Spanish massacres – is not that of an idiotic dictator, of a paranoid Stalin, resolved to organize a large scale destruction of the enemy, to accelerate the advent of workers’ heaven before surrendering. It’s the fear of a new Enola gay – because the plane of the Apocalypse remains in America’s memory, and has been bothering it since the day of Hiroshima – held by kamikaze anxious to sacrifice themselves – like the cowboy commander of B52 told by Stanley Kubrick, riding the bomb for the last time, to answer an uncontrollable divine order. To become what Robert Oppenheimer understood he had become, when he quoted the holy book of Hinduism: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”