Restore the horror?

At the earliest possible date, my administration will deploy missile defenses. ... Now is the time, not to defend outdated treaties, but to defend the American people.—George W. Bush, Aug. 3, 2000

That’s pretty scary stuff when you realize what he really meant. But one interesting thing about the shrub’s acceptance speech was that nobody actually seems to have read it. The chattering class was concentrating so hard on his delivery that little attention was paid to the content. To be sure, watching him labor through the speech was mildly fascinating. My first thought on seeing his somewhat pained expression was to wonder if he were constipated. Soon, I realized that while he certainly was — intellectually — physically he was laboring hard at trying to look, and sound, serious and presidential.

Damn. Even the Republicans didn’t pretend any Gettysburg Address had been committed. The speech appeared to be the product of various writers whose phrases were then mixed up. The cleverer they were, the less they sounded authentic when mouthed by Dubya, who was at his best when talking about the “dry wells and sandstorms” of Texas.

Nobody much noticed that he seemed to be saying — as quoted above — that he planned to cheerfully ignore our treaties limiting nuclear weapons, if they get in the way of building his “Star Wars” missile defense shield. President Clinton already has promised to waste $60 billion building some kind of minimal missile-defense system.

By the way, we have a treaty — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, negotiated by a Republican president — forbidding us to do that. Today’s politicians don’t seem to care. The experts agree, as they did back when Ronald Reagan was pushing the idea, that such a thing won’t work, and fear if we try to build it, it could touch off a new arms race, if other nations — Russia — feel they have to keep up. Clinton admits in a full-scale war we’d still be toast, but wants some kind of mini-Star Wars, on the theory that it could shoot down a lone bomb or two in case of an accidental launch or a terrorist attack.

Bush wants a full-scale system, at a cost of what, in the end, would approach a trillion dollars. This would be very good news for arms dealers, who doubtless will be investing heavily in his campaign. But it is apt to make the Russians very nervous.

They can’t afford Star Wars, which frightens them and should frighten us. What if they feel they have to try and do something about it before it is actually finished? That was the plot of the best, and most realistic, doomsday novel of the 1980s, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday and the Journey Onward.

Now, however, we never worry about nuclear weapons, which is, to me, scary, and far sillier than the “duck-and-cover” drills when, as schoolchildren in the 1950s, we were taught how to wedge our little bodies under our desks when the atomic fireball hit. The day after Bush’s triumphant speech, two women came to speak at the International Institute of Greater Detroit. No press covered them, as far as I could tell. They had a somewhat different take on things nuclear, perhaps since both of them had survived having an atomic bomb dropped on them. By America, incidentally.

“I was blown into a wall by the blast and buried under crushed tiles and plaster,” said Tamiko Tomonaga, who was a nursing student in Hiroshima the morning we dropped the bomb. Afterward, when she came to, “we carried dead bodies out of the hospitals and burned our classmates and the other patients to ashes on gathered wood.”

Sachie Tashima, who traveled with her, was a toddler when we atom-bombed Nagasaki three days later. Fleeing the city with her parents, she still remembers “the countless dead bodies on the ground, swelled by the fire like balloons, their eyes popping out; a Buddhist priest sitting straight up on a cushion, praying and burned black.”

They came to the only country that has ever dropped atom bombs on people to mark the 55th anniversary of that horror. They aren’t, by the way, anti-American in the least. They are anti-nuclear madness. We ought to be too, and you might let your local congressman and senator — Carl Levin particularly needs bucking up on this issue, as does candidate Debbie Stabenow — know how you feel about reviving fears of nuclear war.

President Clinton does a good thing (!): Sitting in front of me listening to the Japanese women speak was the amazing Millie Jeffrey, a tiny dynamo who, at 88, is considerably sharper and has more energy than I. That day her phone rang; she was being invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. This is after a lifetime of service in which she worked for civil rights, as a labor organizer and was a pioneering feminist before any of that was cool. Among many other things, she helped make Walter Reuther aware of women’s issues, helped educate John F. Kennedy about African-American concerns, ran Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Michigan and, while a member of the Wayne State Board of Governors, helped persuade Walter Mondale to choose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Naturally, it is clear she would have been a stronger choice for Al Gore’s running mate than what’s-his-name, but you can’t blame the veep for not picking someone whose credentials would only have drawn attention to his youth and inexperience. Though it may be an age of pygmies, we do have giants among us still.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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