I was in the city of Nagasaki, Japan, lecturing about the renewed threat of nuclear war when I heard about the 38 minutes of panic in Hawaii caused by a false missile alert.
I’d spent the past day speaking with survivors of a nuclear attack, and years studying the unimaginable humanitarian consequences. But I was not prepared for the simple thought: What would I do? What would I tell my children?
The thought stayed with me as I traveled to Hiroshima — the only other city to ever have suffered a nuclear bomb.
Japan, like Hawaii, finds itself in the crosshairs between two men with fragile egos and big buttons.
For too long we have been told to be silent as men discuss the nuclear problem and debate our future. People should not have to sit helpless, huddled in their bathrooms, as so many in Hawaii were last week.
Those people deserve a say in the system that made them live in fear. We all have the right to go about our daily lives knowing our phones won’t suddenly ring messages of nuclear panic.
We have now lived under this cloud for over 72 years.
Enough. Enough rushing hospital patients away from windows. Enough scanning Twitter in hopes of a false alarm. Enough finding ways to tell our children they might die because powerful men are calling each other names. Enough waiting for others to solve the nuclear problem.
Last year we started taking back our own destinies: 122 nations voted in favor of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is a treaty to ban living under the constant fear of nuclear attack, by eliminating nuclear weapons.
While people in Hawaii escaped disaster on Saturday, one thing is certain: If we have nuclear weapons long enough, they will be used. Like all humans, the people in charge of the nuclear buttons are flawed. The systems in place to safeguard accidents are fallible.
We have avoided nuclear Armageddon not due to prudent leadership, but good fortune. We cannot simply wait for our luck to run out. It is only a matter of time.
Despite every administration since Harry Truman paying lip service to nuclear disarmament, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction.
The leaked Nuclear Posture Review shows the Trump administration wants more “low yield” nuclear bombs so the world knows it is more likely to use them (evidently the bombs have gotten too big to be useful). The bomb dropped here on Hiroshima would today be considered “low yield.”
In other words, officials consider what happened here in Hiroshima to be “minor,” and would not think twice about destroying cities in the same manner.
I doubt anyone in Hawaii would have been unconcerned if it was only a Hiroshima-sized bomb on its way.
The nuclear ban treaty sets a clear pathway for nuclear abolition. It is possible. Whether we get there or not will depend in no small part of the citizens of the United States.
You have a right to not live in perpetual fear. You have a voice in this. The people of Hawaii have felt something awful and unique: the complete powerlessness that comes with living in the crossfire.
It’s time to reject that powerlessness. It’s time for a new reality, where we reclaim the right not to panic when our screens flash an emergency alert. Use your voices to tell the story of what Saturday morning felt like. Tell your fellow Americans, tell the rest of the world. Demand a future free from that fear.
Beatrice Fihn is executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
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