If someone holds a classroom full of children hostage with a machine gun, threatening to kill them unless his demands are met, we consider him a dangerous, crazy terrorist. But if a head of state holds millions of civilians hostage with nuclear weapons, many consider this as perfectly normal. We must end that double standard and recognize nuclear weapons for what they are: instruments of terror.

On July 8, 1996, the World Court declared the threat or use of nuclear weapons contrary to international law and unanimously called on all states to conduct negotiations leading to complete nuclear disarmament.

Treaties have been concluded to ban biological and chemical weapons. Why has an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons eluded us for so long? If Hitler had used nuclear weapons and lost the war, they would have been outlawed as cruel and inhuman long ago.

But because they were first used by the victorious side in a war considered just, they have enjoyed an undeserved aura of legitimacy. Over the last fifty years, many flawed arguments have been put forward intended to justify the policy of nuclear deterrence.

It has been asserted, for example, that nuclear weapons have helped prevent war. Yet the five declared nuclear powers have been involved in eight times as many wars on average since 1945 as the non-nuclear countries. Some credit nuclear weapons with having prevented nuclear war, which is preposterous: without nuclear weapons, there could not possibly be any nuclear war. At the peak, the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals had a destructive power nearly 10,000 times all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or, as President Carter said in his farewell address, one World War II every second for a slow afternoon.

It is conceivable that the threat of nuclear retaliation may help deter a deliberate attack, but not every war begins that way.

When tensions are high, events may escalate out of a small incident, and it is sometimes hard to say who did what first.

Relying on the threat of mutual destruction to deter war is as if we sought to prevent traffic accidents by packing our car with dynamite, putting a trip wire around it and telling everyone, “Don’t hit my car, or it will explode and kill you!” (and me too, of course). This should deter others from hitting me intentionally, but the slightest accidental collision would be fatal.

On numerous occasions, we came close to a nuclear catastrophe, due to misinformation, misunderstandings, or computer errors.

During the Cuban missile crisis, the United States was ready to retaliate against the Soviet Union if Castro had shot down American observation planes, convinced that he did so on Soviet orders. That could easily have escalated out of control. In fact, Khrushchev had ordered Castro to stop shooting at American planes, but Castro ignored his orders. Fortunately, no plane was hit.

As long as the nuclear powers insist on the right to keep their arsenals, some other countries will be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons, too. Once terrorists get hold of nuclear weapons, they may not shrink from using them. Unless we eliminate nuclear weapons, it is only a question of time until they are used, whether deliberately or by accident. We are playing Russian roulette with our future.

Despite decades of government propaganda, US and British polls have found repeatedly that up to 85 percent of voters are in favor of eliminating all nuclear weapons. We must tell the leaders of the nuclear nations that we reject our role as involuntary nuclear hostages. The abolition of nuclear weapons requires a popular movement, in the same way as the abolition of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid came about only after sustained public pressure.

Some grant we might be better off if nuclear weapons had never been invented, but argue that now that we know how to make them, we cannot disinvent them, and therefore have to live with them as long as civilization exists. It is true that we cannot disinvent nuclear weapons, but nobody has disinvented cannibalism either, we simply abhor it. Can’t we learn to abhor equally the thought of incinerating entire cities with nuclear weapons


Dietrich Fischer is Academic Director of the European University Center for Peace Studies in Stadtschlaining, Austria (www.epu.ac.at) and Co-Director of TRANSCEND (www.transcend.org), a peace and development network.