“The sound of one finger pressing the button is the sound of a deeper silence, brought about by unrelenting apathy”

What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of one finger pressing the button? Surely the concept of deterrence is more enigmatic and perplexing than a Zen Koan!

The concept of deterrence, which underlies the nuclear weapons policies of the United States and other nuclear weapons states, presupposes human rationality in all cases. It is based upon the proposition that a rational person will not attack you if he understands that his country will be subject to unacceptable damage by retaliation.

What rational person would want his country to be exposed to unacceptable damage? Perhaps one who miscalculates. A rational person could believe that he could take action X, and that would not be sufficient for you to retaliate. Saddam Hussein, for example, believed that he could invade Kuwait without retaliation from the United States. He miscalculated, in part because he had been misled by the American Ambassador to Iraq who informed him that the US would not retaliate. Misinformation, misunderstanding, or misconstruing information could lead a rational person to miscalculate. We don’t always get our information straight, and we seldom have all of the facts.

Deterrence is a Fool’s Game

Even more detrimental to the theory of deterrence is irrationality. Can anyone seriously believe that humans always act rationally? Of course not. We are creatures who are affected by emotions and passions as well as intellect. Rationality is not to be relied upon. People do not always act in their own best interests. Examples abound. Almost everyone knows that smoking causes terrible diseases and horrible deaths, and yet hundreds of millions of people continue to smoke. We know that the stock markets are driven by passions as much as they are by rationality. The odds are against winning at the gambling tables in Las Vegas, and yet millions of people accept the odds, believing that they can win despite the odds.

Nuclear deterrence is based on rationality — the belief that a rational leader will not attack a country with nuclear weapons for fear of retaliation. And yet, it is clearly irrational to believe that rationality will always prevail. Let me put it another way. Isn’t it irrational for a nation to rely upon deterrence, which is based upon humans always acting rationally (which they don’t), to provide for its national security? Those who champion deterrence appear rational, but in fact prove their irrationality by their unfounded faith in human rationality.

With nuclear deterrence, the deterring country threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is attacked. What if a country is attacked by nuclear weapons, but is unable to identify the source of the attack? How does it retaliate? Obviously, it either guesses, retaliates against an innocent country, or doesn’t retaliate. So much for deterrence. What if a national leader or terrorist with a nuclear weapon believed he could attack without being identified? It doesn’t matter whether he is right or wrong. It is his belief that he is unidentifiable that matters. So much for deterrence. What if a leader of a country doesn’t care if his country is retaliated against? What if he believes he has nothing more to lose, like a nuclear-armed Hitler in his bunker? So much for deterrence!

It takes only minimal analysis to realize that nuclear deterrence is a fool’s game. The unfortunate corollary is that those who propound nuclear deterrence are fools in wise men’s garb. The further corollary is that we have entrusted the future of the human species to a small group of fools. These include the political and military leaders, the corporate executives who support them and profit from building the weapons systems, and the academics and other intellectuals like Henry Kissinger, who provide the theoretical underpinnings for the concept of deterrence.

The Immorality of Nuclear Weapons

Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, we continue to live in a world in which a small number of nations rely upon the theory of deterrence to provide for their national security. In doing so, they threaten to kill tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of innocent people by retaliation should deterrence fail. To perhaps state what should be obvious, but doesn’t appear to our leaders to be: This is highly immoral. It also sets an extremely bad example for other states, whose leaders just might be thinking: If the strongest nations in the world are continuing to rely upon nuclear weapons for their national security, shouldn’t we be doing so also? Fortunately, most leaders in most countries are concluding that they should not.

There is only one way out of the dilemma we are in, and that is to begin immediately to abolish nuclear weapons. This happens also to be required by international law as stated in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and as decided unanimously in the 1996 opinion of the International Court of Justice: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Morality, the law, and rationality converge in the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This is the greatest challenge of our time. The will of the people on this issue is being blocked by only a few leaders in a few countries. As the world’s most powerful nation, leadership should fall most naturally to the United States. Unfortunately, the policies of the United States have been driven by irrationality to the detriment of our own national security and the future of life on our planet. This is unlikely to change until the people of the United States exercise their democratic rights and demand policies that will end the nuclear threat to humanity. These include: negotiating a multilateral treaty for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons under strict and effective international control; de-alerting nuclear weapons and separating warheads from delivery vehicles; making pledges of No First Use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances; stopping all nuclear testing and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; reaffirming the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and applying strict international safeguards to all weapons-grade fissile materials and agreeing to no further production of such materials.

A Call to Action

The sound of one hand clapping is silence. That is the sound of most people in most places in response to the nuclear weapons policies of the nuclear weapons states. While they do not applaud these policies with both hands, they also do not raise their voices to oppose them.

The sound of one finger pressing the button is the sound of a deeper silence, brought about by unrelenting apathy. It is the sound of the silence before a more final silence. It is an unbearable silence `for its consequences are beyond our power to repair. It is a silent death knell for humanity. We must raise our voices now with passion and commitment to prevent this pervasive silence from becoming the sound of our world.