"I AM become death, the shatterer of worlds."

Those words from the Bhagavad Gita flashed through Robert Oppenheimer’s mind 60 years ago today, on the occasion of the first nuclear weapon’s test in New Mexico. Less than a month later, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The current issue of The New Scientist (but you have to pay to read the article) commemorates that day:

The world’s first ever atomic bomb was tested on 16 July 1945. Almost exactly 60 years on, the nuclear legacy is still a worrying threat, with nine nuclear nations, 27,000 bombs and 1855 tonnes of plutonium in the world. The question is, how safe are we? Last week at a conference in Vienna, 89 countries agreed to keep a closer watch on the movement of nuclear materials, in order to prevent fissile material going astray. But is it too little, too late?

It is all too easy today to forget about those facts & to relegate the atom bomb to the out-dated, rusty arsenal of the cold war era. Or to blow the sapiens sapiens species’ horn by glorying in the fact that we didn’t use the bomb during all those years of the US-USSR stand-off, or by claiming success for the mad strategy of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).

I remember walking to school on a cold and rainy October morning in 1956, in Luxembourg, aged 10, & discussing the breaking news — the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union’s occupying forces — with a school friend. We had listened with our fathers to the radio broadcasting endless news bulletins & commentaries of the unfolding events. We were both certain that it was only a matter of weeks before the Soviet tanks would roll beyond the borders of Hungary, cross Germany & conquer Western Europe & thus our little country too. This was scary indeed, but even scarier was the next thought: the US would once again come to the help of the Europeans, but this time with the help of their biggest weapons, the atom bombs, & in the process unleash a disaster that would signal the end of the world.

This scenario did not come to pass, happily, but it is from that moment that I date my own budding awareness of the situation in the world: born the year after the bomb was first tested & used, I was becoming conscious that I belonged to a new generation of the human species, the first one that had acquired the power to extinguish itself (and the planet that had given it life). There had been wars ever since homo sapiens had emerged on the vast plains of the late Pleistocene, and some of the latest wars — the 2 World Wars of the 20th century — has been terrifying indeed, as had been the genocides of the Armenians and the Jews which had framed that century so far. But there had always been a survivor, even if that survivor was the murderer of those who didn’t survive. Now we were in a new situation where both sides — agressor & victim — could be/ would be wiped out in a flash, and “the world” with them. It is this ability, this ultimate power of total self-destruction, which I have always thought of as the defining situation of my life time.

Sixty years later, there have been many more wars, several more genocides, yet the nuclear arsenal has not been used. A victory for the species? Hardly. A rational act of self-preservation? Impossible to say, really. But I doubt it. We may just have had a lucky run — a streak that could come to an end anytime. The only thing we know for certain is that the possibility of total self destruction is and will remain with us forever. A thought once thought cannot be made unthought. Nothing I have witnessed or thought since that day in October 1956 has convinced me that we have the ability to improve our track record, to “evolve” into a more peaceful species. Inescapable predatory genes or culture-bound, religion-sanctioned and acquired war-mongering? Probably an inextricable mix of both. We muddle on, & let the dead bury the dead — maybe our most arrogant act of self-delusion.

(Visited 54 times, 1 visits today)

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *