Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Reign of Terror

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

A Reign of Terror

Article excerpt

A REIGN OF TERROR Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, by Elaine Scarry. W.W. Norton and Company.

AMID WORRIES about a new Cold War, of standoffs with old enemies and con- frontations with new ones, Harvard professor Elaine Scarry's latest book is a chilling reminder of the doom our presiden- tially controlled nuclear arsenal can unleash upon the world. Early on, she reminds us that President Nixon told reporters, "I can get on the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead."

This boast illustrates Scarry's thesis: We live in a thermonuclear monarchy, where one person-the U.S. president-can destroy the world. Nuclear doom is an accident wait- ing to happen, and she reviews a number of barely publicized near misses.

But she sees a solution at hand-the U.S. Constitution, specifically both Article I, Section 8, which says that Congress alone can declare war, and the Second Amendment. The text of the latter reads: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." (Emphasis added.) Scarry argues that the amendment mandates a second level of citizen consent to war, a further brake to executive power, even after Congress has given its approval-that the writers of the Constitution intended that before the U.S. engaged in any war the people would have to consent to join a militia, a form of collective partici- pation in the decision for war. According to Scarry, our out-of-ratio nuclear weapons stock- pile, ready to launch at the command of a sin- gle person, has negated the Constitution- mandated chain of accountability and decision-making and is therefore illegal.

Scarry, a scholar of social theory, argues that the social contract on which the Constitution stands also outlaws nuclear weapons. Departing from some interpreta- tions, she maintains that the social contract as developed through the centuries is actually a covenant for peace, giving us a blueprint on how to live without war.

Except for the faithful Plowshares anti- nuclear activists, most of "we the people" no longer think about nuclear war. Perhaps it's because we simply can't think of it, can't get our heads around the idea that one person can input the codes that will kill every one of us, friend or foe. Scarry forces us to face the realities. For example, she writes that each U. …

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