Mobile pornography

Racist nukes

Most people in America agree on one thing: Nuclear weapons are most dangerous when they’re in the hands of Third World leaders.

The paradigm goes like this: Western countries are reasonably stable, responsible, rational, respectful of human life, and secular; Third World countries are unstable, irresponsible, irrational, bloodthirsty, and governed by crazed religiosity. Even otherwise liberal people who disapprove of American foreign policy seem to pretty much agree with this worldview, when it comes to nukes.

Which is why I enjoyed reading a fantastic essay by Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist, that soundly debunks these ideas about Third World nuclear powers. It’s not, he suggests, that Third World leaders and military bigwigs are not frequently stupid, irrational, governed by passions, willing to abuse their power, and quite frankly incompetent. That’s sometimes true, for sure. But it’s equally as true for Western countries that have bombs.

Indeed, the more you learn about the U.S.’s history of maintaining its own “weapons of mass destruction,” the more we seem like the global Keystone Kops:

There have, for example, been at least twenty-four occasions when U.S. aircraft have accidentally released nuclear weapons and at least eight incidents in which U.S. nuclear weapons were involved in plane crashes or fires. In 1980s, during routine maintenance of a Titan II missile in Arkansas, an accident with a wrench caused a conventional explosion that sent the nuclear warhead 600 feet through the air. In another incident an H-bomb was accidentally dropped over North Carolina; only one safety switch worked, preventing the bomb from detonating. In 1966 two U.S. planes collided over Palomares, Spain, and four nuclear weapons fell to the ground, causing a conventional explosion that contaminated a large, populated area with plutonium. One hydrogen bomb was lost for three months. In 1968 a U.S. plane carrying four H-bombs caught fire over Greenland. The crew ejected, and there was a conventional explosion that scattered plutonium over a wide area.

How precisely we managed to have nuclear weapons for so long and not kill massive amounts of people, not by malice, but merely by fucking up really badly, I have no idea.

Gusterson published this essay (“Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination”) back in 1999 in the journal Cultural Anthropology, and apparently it caused an enormous brouhaha. In a way, the analysis reminds of the way economists apply ruthless double standards to Third World countries — as Paul Krugman has pointed out multiple times, the IMF (and Washington) won’t let developing countries protect their currencies, impose basic controls on the flow of capital, or subsidize growing industries … precisely the same stuff that every Western nation did to help its economy grow to sustainability in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I hardly believe that it’s a good idea for Third World nations to have nuclear weapons; but then again, I hardly believe it’s a good idea for First World ones to have them either, and I don’t buy the idea that “our” having them is helping deter the rest of the world from doing singularly nasty stuff. Our attitudes towards those uppity foreigners in India and Pakistan and Iraq who want their own bombs reveals more about our disdain for the rest of the world than we’d imagine. I wish to hell this essay of Gusterson’s was online for general reading, but it’s not.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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