The recent revelations about secret U.S. nuclear warfighting plans are a wake up call.
When the Cold War ended more than 10 years ago, people everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief, desperately wanting to believe that the threat of nuclear Armageddon had passed.
But while ordinary Americans put nuclear weapons out of their minds, the U.S. military-political establishment regrouped following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and fabricated a new set of justifications for retaining nuclear weapons and refining them for greater utility in the changed international context.
Mahatma Gandhi, in a deeply prophetic statement, warned that the world would return to violence with "renewed zeal" after revulsion at the destructive power of the first atomic bombs had worn off.
"The atomic bomb brought an empty victory, but it resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see...."
The consequences that Gandhi foresaw are now apparent. The Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reaffirms the centrality of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy and makes their use more credible.
Nuclear weapons are no longer relegated to the category of weapons of last resort. They are to be fully integrated into a broad spectrum of warfighting capabilities.
The NPR identifies three scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used: "against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack," in retaliation for the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, or -- most disturbing, "in the event of surprising military developments."
This last condition reads like chilling footnote to the administration's open-ended and undefined "war against terrorism."
The NPR cannot be dismissed as a mere "contingency plan." The National Nuclear Security Administration relied on the NPR as its primary justification for requesting $5.9 billion from Congress for nuclear weapons activities -- not including delivery systems -- in FY2003.
The budget request states: "Most importantly, this [Nuclear Posture] review reemphasizes the importance of nuclear weapons to deter the threats of weapons of mass destruction, to assure allies of U.S. security commitments, to hold at risk an adversary's assets and capabilities that cannot be countered through nonnuclear means and to dissuade potential adversaries from developing large-scale nuclear or conventional threats."
In a society where talk about "nuking" our food and "nuking" our enemies has become routine, we have forgotten what nuclear weapons are.
In 1995, before the International Court of Justice, Hiroshima's Mayor, Takashi Hiraoka, described the unimaginable horrors of nuclear weapons.
"Beneath the atomic bomb's monstrous mushroom cloud, human skin was burned raw. Crying for water, human beings died in desperate agony. With thoughts of these victims as the starting point, it is incumbent upon us to think about the nuclear age and the relationship between human beings and nuclear weapons."
More than 50 years after dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, the United States -- the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons -- is again contemplating their potential use.
If the programs and policies advocated in the NPR go forward, they will doom hopes for progress on arms control and disarmament for the foreseeable future, and will add to the increasingly unstable global security environment. Russia will retain an arsenal large enough to destroy the United States, and China will likely modernize and expand its own relatively small nuclear forces.
Moreover, the viability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has limited the spread of nuclear weapons, will be endangered. If the world's most powerful nation feels that it must rely on the threatened use of nuclear weapons to ensure its "national security," why shouldn't we expect other countries to follow suit?
As responsible global citizens, we must insist on a more sustainable concept of "human security" based on the security of all people everywhere -- in their homes, in their communities, in their jobs and in their environment. Nuclear weapons have no place in this new security paradigm.
Jacqueline Cabasso is executive director and Andrew Lichterman is program director at the Western States Legal Foundation (www.wslfweb.org) in Oakland, California.