I Am Become Death (part 1)

One of the most brilliant quips from the social critic Paul Goodman is that "technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science." Goodman was astute enough to recognize that technological "progress" was not a monolithic process but the consequence of many decisions made by individuals and institutions. Any specific technology will bring about changes, sometimes unexpected ones, for good or ill, often both. The challenge, which Goodman implored us to conceive as a moral one, is to make it likely, if not certain, that the technologies we choose to bring into the world, considering the full spectrum of their likely effects, will make the world a better place to live.

Of all the technological developments of the 20th century, perhaps the one that's been hardest for human beings to live with has been the atomic bomb. What moral values does its invention imply? It started amid the terror of total warfare, with Einstein's famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt, written weeks before the German invasion of Poland. The ethics implicit in this letter are clear—they are the ethics of the jungle, the ethics of warfare at its most brutal: do it to them before they do it to you; kill or be killed.

Inevitably, the government's utmost capacity was devoted to developing the bomb, and inevitably, once developed, it was used in warfare. There are many people who still accept the justification President Truman offered to a war-weary population—that the atomic bombings were necessary to secure the enemy's surrender. I don't mean to discuss why this argument was disingenuous; the late Howard Zinn did that admirably, among others. I would merely point out the moral philosophy upon which Truman was relying: the end justifies the means.

The existence of nuclear weapons has challenged and undermined human faith in ourselves, our works, and our future. Many writers, none more brilliant or persistent than Jonathan Schell, have dwelled upon how the dawn of the nuclear age transformed the human condition, making it impossible to assume an indefinite human future, making the survival of the species essentially up to us—that is, up to a small number of individuals with custody of this technology, above all the president of the United States.

In the book Bomb Power, published this year, the eminent historian Garry Wills gives us a dispassionate analysis of the way nuclear weapons have bent our republic out of shape. A few reviewers have quibbled with some of the scholarship in Wills' book and questioned the scope of his conclusions, but to me the basic case he makes is unassailable. Incorporating nuclear weapons into the U.S. military apparatus and making them the linchpin of American defense policy set the government on a path that cannot be reconciled with the intent of the founders or the instructions they provided in the Constitution. It wrecked their elaborate system of checks and balances by centering power in the executive branch and in the office of the president. Not only that, it gave the executive an invincible tool with which to accumulate ever more power, "bomb power," through secrecy, covert activity, the concealment of information not only from mere citizens but even from Congress, and the overarching climate of never-ending life-or-death emergency that made national security a trump card over all other functions of government.

All of these dynamics, Wills argues, were in place right from the beginning of the Manhattan Project. They only gained in importance as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings provided a seamless segue between World War II and the Cold War. The vague whiff of an opportunity to address some of these abnormalities may have become detectable with the end of the Cold War, but before we knew it, the window slammed shut on 9/11. To Wills, the tyrannical excesses of the Bush/Cheney "war on terror"—torture, rendition, warrantless surveillance, signing statements, trashing habeas corpus, the "unitary executive" theory—all followed logically from the arrogation of executive power during World War II and the immediate postwar years, all set into motion by the bomb, its equipment, the day-to-day doomsday routines of its deployment, and the apocalyptic fear in which it is all enshrouded.

There's a moral philosophy for you. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Under President Obama, these abuses continue, despite the president's proclaimed commitment to the "ultimate" objective of a nuclear-weapon-free world. His administration openly acknowledged, for example, that it has pre-authorized the assassination of several American citizens, including Anwar al-Awlaki, in the name of the ongoing war with terrorists.

Paul Goodman's awareness of the depths of this "chronic acute emergency" led him to participate in the "Worldwide General Strike for Peace" in early 1962. "When the institutions of society threaten the very foundation of the social contract, namely, biological safety," he said, "then the social contract is very near to being dissolved." He advocated "the rational-animal response of saying, No. We won't go along with it. Stop it." Easier said than done.