Come behold the works of the land, the astounding things that
God has wrought on earth; God has stopped wars to the end of the
earth, broken bows, splintered spears, burned shields with fire
. . .
1.7 billion killed, maimed, or sickened by nuclear weapons and power.
—Dr. Rosalie Bertell
Denial permeates American society like salt in sea water. Our institutions practice denial habitually—cavalier with the truth, jealous for the status quo, lusting for expansion, money, and power. Individuals learn denial from the ambiguity and equivocation of the institutions, which direct and patronize the culture.
At the root of denial is intention—one could call it our national death wish. Both leadership and publis, with virtual unanimity, intend to eradicate any enemy if they threaten our “Way of Life” or our “interests.” This intention, which McSorley calls the “taproot of violence,” subverts the moral balance of humanity, enervates the consciences of billions, paralyzes dissent and resistance. Social chaos follows moral chaos. “And if your light is darkness, how deep will your darkness be?” (Matt. 6:23)
Clearly, there will be no justice and peace until we transform this deadly intention with unconditional love.
“In war, the first casualty is truth!” Aeschyles’ comment was what John wrote later in his Gospel—linking lying to murder. War is mass murder. Denial is a form of lying—suppression of the truth, an attack on reality. We deny that war is our number-one business, devoting to it more money, research and development, scientific and technical talent, laboratory space, time, and effort than any other national pursuit.
War itself is The Big Lie, an outrageous denial—the most terrible cursing of God (we never admit this), the greatest contradiction of who we are and how we ought to live. War is a total distortion of reality (we never admit this either). Deeply implicated in interventionary war and nuclear saber rattling, we deny it, rejecting our responsibilities. Finally, when pushed to it, we deny our denial.
One of the more intelligent and decent correctional officers in this prison is Corporal Lane. Sometimes, with Lane, one can experience an informed discussion. But in matters military—never! One day I mentioned to him the frightful Iraqi death toll from our sanctions and depleted uranium. He listened courteously but without comment. It appears he could not compassionate two million dead, the majority children. Nor could he admit our country’s criminality, or his share of it. What promised to be a discussion ended up a monologue by me. His silence seemed to indicate denial about denial—a national disease.
Recently, I read an article by Dr. Rosalie Bertall, a great nun and friend from Toronto, a world-class expert on the consequences of nuclearism—war and nuclear power. She tells us that fifty-five years of adventurism by the nuclear club has killed, maimed, or sickened 1.7 billion people. Since the U.S. kicked off the Doomsday Race and has led every phase of it since, has fought three nuclear wars (Japan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia), and has conducted more atmospheric and underground tests than any other state, then the American responsibility for the lethal total is mammoth.
To trace further our complicity in the deaths of millions (billions) of innocent victims—the U.S. operates nearly twenty-five percent (103) of the world’s nuclear reactors (433). Against the pallid argument that nuclear reactors are “safe,” a study was made of Rancho Seco, a reactor near Sacramento, California. The study showed a sharp decline in infant mortality after closure of the plant in 1989: the fetal death rate dropped five percent; infant death rates dropped sixteen percent; infant death rates from birth defects dropped twenty percent.
Again—the U.S. has staged over half of the atmospheric and underground tests of the nuclear club. In particular, tests in the atmosphere have projected into the stratosphere hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive debris. What has gone up eventually must come down globally, so much so that everyone alive carries plutonium and strontium in their bodies and genes (hence the current epidemic). Despite all this, the U.S. refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and still leads the world in nuclear testing.
Again—to our lasting shame, the U.S. has exploded nuclear weapons for the second time in Iraq, and the third time in Yugoslavia. When depleted uranium shells are fired in battle, the threat to life is not so much the projectile which burns its way through tank armor, but the aerosolized dust created on impact. The irradiated dust, so fine as to be gravity-free, can be inhaled or ingested or can contaminate a scratch or wound. It can also poison soil, water, and vegetation. From our twin wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the countries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia were polluted.
Already it has become apparent that depleted uranium is more deadly to humans and the environment than the cumulative destruction of Agent Orange and land mines. And eventually, if this has not already happened, depleted uranium will claim more lives than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Its demonic genius (consciously engineered by the bomb-makers) consists in its disintegrated radioactive dust, so fine that, practically speaking, it cannot be cleaned up. The staggering total of two million Iraqi dead from our sanctions and depleted uranium will swell even after the sanctions are lifted, because depleted uranium is a delayed-response weapon with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. It will kill and kill and kill indefinitely with cancer—leukemia, lymphoma, cancer of the lungs, kidneys, and bone. Indeed, there are considerable areas of southern Iraq that are now uninhabitable.
As for military casualties, depleted uranium has already killed seven to eight hundred American and British veterans of Desert Storm, and 110,000 Americans are chronically ill and hundreds have fathered deformed children.
Again—the National Academy of Sciences blandly stated in a recent report that 109 of 144 H-bomb production sites are permanently poisoned with radioactivity. “At many sites,” they continue, “radiological wastes will remain, posing risks to humans and the environment for tens or even thousands of years.” The report advised the Department of Energy to end “all plans for deep irreversible burial of radioactive waste,” and, secondly, “mandating above-ground permanently monitored storage.” In other words, neither the Academy nor DOE know what to do about the waste, except to mothball it or put a fence around it.
Our addiction to nuclear denial is ignorant of any of the above, or denies these realities outright. Denies as well the imminent peril of nuclear war, with the Russians and ourselves remaining on hair-trigger alert, ignores that nuclear exchange could spring from accidental technical failure or official hysteria; ignores that the U.S. has poisoned all of North America, the South Pacific Islands, and most of the world’s oceans with radioactivity; ignores that the U.S. has spent over nineteen trillion dollars on war since 1940—“your treasure is where your heart is!” (Matt. 6:21); ignores that the Russians and ourselves have lurched to the nuclear brink a score of times or more; ignores that addiction to the BOMB has made slaves of us, who conspire in our own spiritual and physical destruction. Like lemmings, we scramble for the nuclear cliff.
What words can do justice to this massive, psychotic conspiracy to assault and to end life? One can dredge up nothing from history to match it. It is all-embracing in its scope and malice—humans, animals, plants, soil, air, water. The frenzy to build the ultimate (annihilatory) weapon to threaten, even vaporize enemies totally ignores consequence. Blindness like this is cruel, lawless, demonic. Dr. Bertell would call this deranged adventure “speciesicide,” the killing of our own species. We seem determined to do just that. In all world literature, one Biblical scene accurately measures this total assault upon life. And that is the trial and execution of Jesus Christ, the completely Innocent One, the Anointed of God. Said the leaders, justifying their murderousness: “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) Thomas Merton, commenting on the deadly nature of nuclear weapons, wrote, “We have prepared the Second Crucifixion of Christ, this time in humankind.”
Without further fulmination, is there anything we can do? And if there is, what is it?
There is certainly much that we can do in resisting an oligarchy which is a coalition of naked power—government, transnationals, military, media. But first, there are thresholds of understanding that are preliminary: our malaise is spiritual, centering on our acceptance of violence; second, the student of nonviolence must believe in the God of compassion and justice; third, conduct is the norm—we must act; fourth, nonviolence is more than a tactic—it is a way of life; lastly, non-violent communities of resistance must be sought and built. Be ready for sacrifice.
The above will require a redressing of priorities—we must make room in our lives for justice and peace. There is no alternative to learning nonviolence in community, and nonviolent resistance at the hell-holes of the empire.
Yes, we will end up at the hellholes of the empire if our faith and love hold. That is where God will lead us. That is where we will break the laws legalizing madness and death. That is where we will lose our life only to find it.
For the barbarians are at the gate again (Rome’s decline?), except that this time they are our own people. What must we do to humanize them, before they destroy themselves, us, and the planet?
Philip Berrigan, a 76-year-old former Josephite priest and longtime activist, was, like his brother Daniel, a member of the Cantonsville Nine. He is currently serving a thirty-month sentence for "malicious destruction of property" in connection with a protest in December 1999 during which Berrigan and the three other members (Susan Crane, Steve Kelly SJ, and Elizabeth Walz) of "Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium" hammered and poured blood on two U.S.A-10 "Warthog" fighter planes, the kind they believed was responsible for firing ninety-five percent of the depleted uranium in the war against Iraq and were used extensively against the people of former Yugoslavia, resulting in radioactive poisoning. His autobiography, Fighting the Lamb's War: Skirmishes with the American Empire, was published in September 1996 by Common Courage Press. (2001).