One of the most unforgettable sights in movies is that of Slim Pickens riding an H-bomb down to its target in the closing seconds of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And now, all these decades later, we know just why that scene is so resonant: Because it almost happened.
According to researcher Eric Schlosser in his new book Command and Control, the United States inadvertently dropped two H-bombs over North Carolina in 1961. One of them, Schlosser says, bypassed three safety mechanisms, disarming itself thanks only to the final one – a “simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch,” according to a document Schlosser unearthed via the Freedom of Information Act.
This all happened just three years before the movie was released. (If you’re wondering if Stanley Kubrick had inside information, remember that the movie was based on the 1958 book Red Alert -- so maybe its author, Peter George, might instead deserve some belated kudos for prescience.) Yet according to Schlosser, the incident wasn’t totally unique: He claims to have found evidence that 700 “significant” nuclear accidents transpired between 1950 and 1968. I’m looking forward to reading the book and finding out what the other 699 were, since I’ve already decided that I never, ever need to sleep again.
We don’t think as much about nuclear catastrophe as we did when I was growing up. Back then, the world lived under the constant fear that total annihilation was just a push of a button (or, given Schlosser’s research, one fzzzzzt of a blown fuse) away. Then the Cold War ended, and we no longer had to worry about the prospect of one of the superpowers Ending It All in a blaze of ideological hubris. We could settle into the comfortably humbler idea of thousands of guerilla generals setting off illicitly acquired nukes one at a time. Aahhh, progress.
Schlosser’s findings will no doubt be received with a collective whew! -- processed as artifacts of a crazier but vanished time. Yet on a philosophical level, the North Carolina incident seems illustrative of a lot that’s going down today. While the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction may (arguably) have been minimized since then, the thinking behind it is now firmly entrenched as a mode of policymaking. And just as was the case in the air above North Carolina in 1961, the danger is by us and to us.
I think of the bizarre and nihilistic government-shutdown showdown that’s going on even as we speak. The “King” Kongs and Jack D. Rippers of today are in the House of Representatives, and they aren’t interested in anything as minor as flattening Russia to protect our precious bodily fluids. They want to bring the entire homefront house of cards down around all our heads. And if you can follow their reasoning as to why, you’re battier than Sterling Hayden.
Griffin: Bravely holding the line for stuff he doesn't want.
Friday morning on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) tried to explain why he had voted to shut down the government even though he doesn’t “want” to shut down the government. His excuse was that this is simply how negotiation works. Which was news to me. As far as I’ve ever understood it, negotiation is asking for 100 percent of what you want, in the hopes you might get 50. It is not advancing an idea you know to be deadly to everyone involved, in the hopes you will instead get something that is desirable only to you. That’s not negotiation; that’s terrorism. (It’s why, for example, petitioning your boss for more time off typically does not include the suggestion that you will otherwise go on a 13-state killing spree.)
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t really believe that our elected representatives believe that what they’re doing is bargaining. Especially not the House Republicans. I think they’re proposing – okay, threatening -- to blow up the government because they’d really like to blow up the government. Why they would like to do this is a complex and deeply disquieting matter. Like good old General Ripper, who projected all of his hang-ups and phobias onto the Evil Other, the Tea Party-era GOP is finding itself frustrated in its agenda to turn its self-loathing outward. Recent years have shown them that they can’t keep the coloreds out of the White House, or the queers in the closet. And if Obamacare goes into effect a week from now, they won’t even have the comfort of knowing that quite as many of the little people are going to get sick and die. Faced with a dystopia like that, why not just drop the Big One and end it all?
There are a lot of bodily fluids I could associate with that philosophy. The most obvious one is bile.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 98.
Follow me on Twitter: @Schneider_Stv
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