Risks, prevention and moral imperatives of nuclear arms buildup discussed at diocesan forum

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PROVIDENCE — At any given moment across the United States and Russia, hundreds of missiles stand as sentinels in silos on hair trigger alert, the launch of their nuclear-tipped warheads capable of inflicting exponentially greater damage to their targets than the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan 71 years ago.

It’s a frightening prospect. Or is it?

Despite the dangers posed by the continued stockpiling of these weapons, and the looming possibility that even one of these weapons of mass destruction could be erroneously launched in a tense situation, society today seems desensitized to the possibility that the unthinkable could happen, with little to no advance notice, observes Bishop Thomas J. Tobin.

He recalls growing up in the 1950s and 60s, a time when “Duck and Cover” was being taught to schoolchildren as a way of protecting oneself in the event of a surprise nuclear attack.

“It was terrible to live in that kind of fear of imminent destruction. But it strikes me in some ways that it might be worse to lose that fear of death and destruction,” Bishop Tobin said in opening remarks at last week’s forum “A New Global Nuclear Arms Race: Risks, Prevention and Moral Imperatives.”

The bishop made the point that the potential for such wanton and total destruction does not seem to be in the forefront of people’s concerns any longer as it once was.

The event, organized by the Rhode Island chapter of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the Rhode Island Anti-War Committee, the Tuesday Interfaith Peace Group and American Friends Service Committee was co-sponsored by the Diocese of Providence and held in its McVinney Auditorium on September 21.

Sean Meyer, manager of campaigns for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and moderator of the forum, said that while the topic of nuclear weapons is being discussed more today than perhaps it was a year ago, people are demurring from asking the fundamental questions about arms proliferation.

Trying to make sense of the brashness of North Korea in continuing to test and develop a nuclear arsenal, and the U.S. inking a treaty with Iran trying to prevent them from doing the same are not the underlying discussions that people need to be having, he said.

“Nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable existential risks to the planet, they cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build and maintain and they squander our national treasure when we have so many other pressing needs,” Meyer said of a key school of thought that needs to be further explored.

“Others believe nuclear weapons are essential to our national security, and there are others who have economic or institutional interest in perpetuating nuclear weapons,” he added.

With the United States poised to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years beefing up its nuclear arsenal, and tensions rising across the globe with each new crisis that crosses the horizon, there is an increased risk that such destructive weapons will be used once again.

Dr. Stephen Colecchi, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, coordinates his office’s work with Catholic Relief Services, the Church and other international bodies.

He framed his discussion of the topic in terms of the Just War Theory, which takes into account the life and dignity of the human person.

For Christians, the dilemma arises from the conflict between following the commandment “Thou shall not kill,” and being called to defend ourselves and others in the face of persecution or injustice.

“One cannot liberate a city by obliterating it,” he said of resorting to the nuclear option.

He said the Catholic Church has long warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and that the unique expertise offered by the Church is a moral one.

“Popes and bishops can point with some moral clarity to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but only scientists and political and military leaders can point to the practical steps that we need to undertake to achieve that goal,” Dr. Colecchi said.

He noted that he has enjoyed a strong collaboration with colleagues working in the scientific community in helping to increasing awareness of the need to take a closer look at the implications of building up a nuclear arsenal.

“The fact that scientists and persons of faith can work together on a common purpose testifies to the fact that faith and reason apprehend the same truth. There is only one truth, God’s truth,” Dr. Colecchi said.

Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, spoke about what President Obama — and the next president — should do to reduce the odds that nuclear weapons are used again.

The topic is particularly germane to Rhode Island voters, she noted, because not only is their state home to a facility that will help manufacture new nuclear-armed submarines, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed serves as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Mass., uses rigorous, independent science to find solutions to the planet’s most pressing problems. The organization’s scientists work with citizens across the nation, combining technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe and sustainable future.

Dr. Gronlund discussed the Obama administration’s plan to build a whole new generation of nuclear bombs, missiles and submarines, which will cost roughly $1 trillion over the next 30 years, despite an earlier commitment at the beginning of his presidency to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal beginning in 2018.

“That is a lot of money taken from the poor,” to build up this arsenal, Dr. Gronlund said.

“Not only is the plan expensive, it could also spur a new arms race with China,” she fears, noting how many forces are at work in helping to guide the making of such military decisions.

She also called upon the president to remove land-based nuclear missiles from hair-trigger alert, a threat-level condition which could set the stage for an accidental nuclear launch.