I was recently asked during an interview whether people fear nuclear weapons too much, causing them unnecessary anxiety. The implication was that it is not necessary to live in fear of nuclear weapons.
My response was that fear is a healthy mechanism when one is confronted by something fearful. It gives rise to a fight or flight response, both of which are means of surviving real danger.
In the case of nuclear weapons, these are devices to be feared since they are capable of causing terrifying harm to all humanity, including one’s family, city and country. If one is fearful of nuclear weapons, there will be an impetus to do something about the dangers these weapons pose to humanity.
But, one might ask, what can be done? In reality, there is a limited amount that can be done by a single individual, but when individuals band together in groups, their power to bring about change increases. Individual power is magnified even more when groups join together in coalitions and networks to bring about change.
Large numbers of individuals banded together to bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa. The basic building block of all these important changes was the individual willing to stand up, speak out and join with others to achieve a better world. The forces of change have been set loose again by the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement across the globe.
When dangers are viewed rationally, there may be good cause for fear, and fear may trigger a response to bring about change. On the other hand, complacency can never lead to change. Thus, while fear may be a motivator of change, complacency is an inhibitor of change. In a dangerous world, widespread complacency should be of great concern.
If a person is complacent about the dangers of nuclear weapons, there is little possibility that he will engage in trying to alleviate the danger. Complacency is the result of a failure of hope to bring about change. It is a submission to despair.
After so many years of being confronted by nuclear dangers, there is a tendency to believe that nothing can be done to change the situation. This may be viewed as “concern fatigue.” We should remember, though, that any goal worth achieving is worth striving for with hope in our hearts. A good policy for facing real-world dangers is to never give up hope and never stop trying.
Nuclear weapons threaten the future of the human species and other forms of complex life on the planet. Basically, we have three choices: active opposition to nuclear weapons, justification of the weapons, and complacency. These are three choices that confront us in relation to any great danger.
It is always easier to choose, often by default, justification or complacency than it is to mount active opposition to a danger. But dangers seldom melt away of their own accord and there is no reason to believe that policies of reliance on nuclear weapons will do so. These policies need to be confronted, and such confrontation requires courage. Fear can be most useful when it gives rise to the courage and commitment to bring about change for a safer and more decent future for humanity.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.