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 The Right Hands 

February 13, 2003

Throughout the Iraq debate, I’ve been struck by one persistent euphemism: weapons of mass destruction. Why not just call them weapons of mass murder?

The phrase used to refer to nuclear weapons, but has been broadened to include others that also kill indiscriminately. Since no state wants to admit that it is prepared to kill lots of innocent people, which is what modern warfare entails, our rulers prefer evasive words and pretend that the problem is to keep these dreadful weapons out of “the wrong hands.”

This implies that their own hands are “the right hands” — the hands God would entrust such weapons to, if it were up to him.

The nuclear age began when Albert Einstein urged Franklin Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb, using the discoveries of modern physics to create a device that could kill large populations with a single blast. Otherwise the Germans might do it first. Roosevelt loved the idea and commissioned the Manhattan Project. He died, and Germany surrendered, just before the bomb was ready. So, in August 1945, it was used on Japan.

Only a few years later Stalin had his own nukes. His were definitely “the wrong hands” by then, and we entered a new age of terror. Soon England and France had the bomb too, but since they were U.S. allies theirs were “the right hands.” Only good, advanced, democratic countries should possess weapons of mass murder — that was more or less the idea.

[Breaker quote: The Einstein-Roosevelt brainstorm]It was unfortunate that the weapons of mass murder should have fallen into the hands of a murderer, but at least few other countries had the means to produce them — a fact George Orwell meditated on in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” in October 1945. Orwell was relieved that the bomb was technically difficult and “fantastically expensive” to make, but he also thought that its possession by only a few states would mean a new age of centralized power and a new form of general slavery, with “cold war” between the nuke-holding states. He developed this idea in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; we can now see that he was basically correct.

The United States and the Soviet Union continued making bigger and bigger bombs, while trying to prevent smaller states from making them at all; but eventually China and other states began acquiring them, until a new nightmare emerged: the possibility of the “privatized” nuke, a smaller nuclear device that might be useful to terrorists out of any state’s control.

Well, here we are! The brainy Einstein and the cunning Roosevelt never foresaw this. Because the first atom bomb required a huge and costly project, they assumed it would always be so. The first computers were big, bulky, and expensive too, and now everybody has one on his desk. There is no question of keeping them in “the right hands.” If not atom bombs, then surely other frightful weapons will soon become widely available.

The atom bomb may have seemed like a great idea at the time, but it wasn’t long before Einstein himself was having second thoughts. Was victory over the Axis really worth the price? The really scary part is that the full price may yet to be paid.

As long as you have a monopoly of power, however terrible, it’s easy to feel that power is in the right hands. But when you lose that monopoly, you may start thinking seriously about the nature of power itself. And by then it may be too late.

Today, as the United States is obsessed with disarming Iraq, North Korea has nuclear weapons and is capable of hitting our West Coast with a missile. Thank you, Einstein and Roosevelt. You — you two Einsteins, so to speak — made history, a lot more history than you realized. You released a genie that gave you your wish, but we are having trouble preventing him from granting others their wishes too.

That wish, in plain terms, is the capacity for mass murder. In today’s world, it’s hard to reach agreement on whose hands are the right hands. More and more countries — and private men — feel entitled to the power to kill countless people. Those who already have that power won’t renounce it, but they feel entitled to decide who else may get it.

Nobody should have gotten it in the first place. It was sheer hubris for America to believe that its hands were the right hands.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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