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Why aren’t we afraid of nuclear war?

In 1982 a million people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to protest against nuclear weapons. The following year, over 300,000 people did the same in London’s Hyde Park. In the 1980s it was practically the “in” thing to be against nuclear war. And yet the world was in some ways a safer and more predictable place back then, because most nuclear weapons were in the hands of the two superpower blocks and it was only in the far-fetched plots of James Bond films that crazy people got hold of them.

Fast forward to today, and never have so many nuclear weapons been in the hands of so many unstable regimes. The most unstable nation of all is arguably Pakistan. We know now that Osama bin Laden lived undisturbed for five years in a luxury compound only 800 yards away from the country’s elite military academy. Last December almost 150 schoolchildren were killed by Taliban gunmen in a brutal attack on the army public school in Peshawar. If the government of Pakistan is toppled, there are many terrorist groups waiting to take control, and this country could quickly become a nuclear nightmare for its neighbours.

Now a nuclear deal is imminent with Iran. This proud country claims it is developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But why does a country that has 10% of the entire world’s oil reserves and 15% of its gas even need nuclear energy? And why did it build underground bunkers and secret facilities if it has only benign nuclear intentions? Can the world put its faith in a treaty with Iran when past agreements have not been honoured? Why do its leaders regularly make deadly threats against Israel, and will they limit themselves to menacing rhetoric if they get their hands on nuclear weapons? And is Israel simply going to sit on the sidelines and let this all happen? There are many unsettling questions and few reassuring answers.

Overheated words can all too easily spill over into all-out conflict, so the recent tough talk about nuclear confrontation coming out of Russia in the wake of the crisis in the Ukraine is especially worrying. However, as a rule, the nations which already possess nuclear weapons are loath to unleash them, because they know they risk being destroyed in a tidal wave of mutual destruction. But small groups of terrorists who are ready to die for their cause have no such scruples. Their only goal is to inflict as much suffering and death as possible, and nuclear weapons are ideally suited to their purposes. With groups like this plotting destruction, the surreal story lines of James Bond films no longer seem so wacky.

If we find ourselves in a nuclear countdown faced with terrorists who are difficult to locate, answerable to no one, do not identify with any nation, and have no interest in negotiation or compromise, world leaders will be helpless. Let’s hope by then we’ll have the humility to turn to God, the One our world should have invoked long before it starting treading down this dangerous nuclear road.

Author: Tom Casey SJ