This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.
— From “The Matrix,” by Larry and Andy Wachowski
The world is shaped by choices.
I was not yet born when our president gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But I had nightmares after I saw the pictures and read the terrible words about the supposed necessity of vaporizing or killing 200,000 people, causing the eventual death of at least 200,000 more. The world was distorted by this nuclear legacy.
I vividly recall the yellow-and-black “fallout shelter” sign in the glazed brick hallway outside of my first-grade classroom. I remember staring at it as we lined up for recess, wondering if this would be the day the bombs would fall on us.
As a teen, I lived near Nike Site Road. From there we could see outbuildings painted green as the grass. I didn’t make the connection to the Nike missile until I learned about the high rate of domestic violence among the soldiers who lived in Army barracks beside the Pennsylvania Turnpike, their fingers on the buttons that could destroy the world.
As a young adult, I avoided eye contact with the nuclear soldiers when they came to the American Legion Hall for a beer. If one of them asked me to dance, I would make an excuse out of my fear at their reputed rage.
Learning to fear
Life went on. I married, moved to another state and I didn’t think about the nuclear missiles poised to strike or be stricken on the hill above my childhood home until I read Dr. Helen Caldicott’s book “Missile Envy” while nursing my youngest child.
Until then I didn’t know precisely how afraid I should be. And then I could not un-know it.
So I joined Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. We brought Dr. Caldicott to speak at the University of Michigan. She told us about radiation from testing the bombs, told us the facts about nuclear-powered electricity generating and its connection to bomb making. She begged us to help her to stop the nuclear menace. She said that at least if the bombs fly we would be able to turn to our children and honestly say we tried everything to stop this.
Overnight, our little band of 13 became an army of 600. We lobbied, wrote letters to editors, to Congress, to presidents. We marched and danced for peace, sang and screamed for peace. I ran for office. We tried desperately to change the world.
The Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War ended. We felt we could take a full breath for the first time. We claimed victory and said the power of women and of love had come to fruition. There would be a “peace dividend” and the Air Force would need to hold a bake sale to build a bomber.
But the peace dividend never came. Maybe it never will.
Perpetual state of war
Now we live in a perpetual state of war, with robotic drones guided by anonymous soldiers in comfy chairs outside of Las Vegas. They play video games of minor destruction in targeted kills ordered by the president himself.
Mercenaries wage our wars, siphoning profits from the people’s tax dollars. Small companies on innocuous corners create previously unimaginable weapons.
And still the nuclear weapons are poised to strike. The Nike missiles that sat snugly in silos less than a mile from my childhood home are gone — removed in the middle of the night. According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are more than 19,000 nuclear warheads in the world, with around 4,400 of them kept in “operational” status, ready for potential use.
In an open letter to President Obama on the occasion of his inauguration, Father John Dear, a Catholic pacifist, wrote, “When Nelson Mandela became president, he unilaterally dismantled South Africa’s nuclear weapons (as well as abolished the death penalty).”
Nuclear weapons do not protect us. They steal our resources and incite other nations to build similar weapons. And threat descends on us all. We need our scientists to pursue life-giving research instead. Set them free to study alternative sources of energy that can reverse global warming and heal the Earth.
Our president won the Nobel Peace Prize but even then he wouldn’t promise to be a peacemaker.
Our country is the only one to deploy a weapon of atomic mass destruction. And to do it twice is beyond belief. Since then we have lived with mutually assured destruction as our only real deterrent to mass annihilation. Our nation bullies other nations into compliance and unleashes computer viruses to stop other countries from acquiring nuclear capability. Somehow nuclear scientists in Iran are murdered in broad daylight.
Scientifically we are capable of the most ingenious methods to create and explore. We put a second rover on Mars! We built prosthetic legs so Olympians can run like cheetahs!
But America spends even more trillions on the capability to destroy and explode.
If we build it . . .
If our scientists can conceive of a weapon, our politicians will find a target. Or is it the other way around?
Morally and ethically, we seem to have made little progress since August of 1945. Living in the nuclear soup, we make our choices. To know or not know. To care or not care. To build a world of peace, or take the little blue pill that will transport us to a fantasy world in which we bear no responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Japan, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in Detroit.
I prefer the red pill.
Valerie Mapstone Ackerman, a Unitarian Universalist minister and social worker, lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.