Elaine Scarry Speaks on Nuclear Weapons
Issue   |   Wed, 03/11/2015 - 01:40

Elaine Scarry, a professor of English and American literature at Harvard, spoke in Beneski’s Paino Lecture Hall on March 5. The respected scholar attracted a crowd of Amherst College community members as well as local and national peace activists. Scarry’s lecture, entitled “The Abolition of Nuclear Weapons,” argued that that nuclear weapons may violate constitutional rights and undermine democracy.

The lecture is a part of several events that the Peace and Planet Mobilization campaign will hold this spring, leading up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference in New York City in April. The Peace and Planet initiative has representatives from multiple international organizations, and its website states that its aim is to work towards a nuclear-free and peaceful global environment.

The event was organized as part of the Nuclear Weapon Abolition Movement’s Pioneer Valley Spring Campaign. The American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, a group that advocates for pacifistic and social justice causes, collaborated with Ben Walker ‘16, a member of the Green Amherst Project, in order to bring Scarry to campus.

Scarry is well known for her seminal book “The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.” The March 5 talk was guided by another of her books, “Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom,” in which she suggests that nuclear weapons are fundamentally at odds with the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of other democratic nations.

In her lecture, Scarry discussed the ongoing threat of nuclear proliferation and raised concerns about the civil violations brought about by nuclear weapons.

“Everyone knows about the physical deformations brought about by nuclear weapons, but I want to address the civil deformations,” Scarry said. “For one, with the threat of nuclear weapons, we have lost the right to self-defense, which is at the core of all other rights. Also, nuclear weapons eliminate the right to mutual aid, as hospitals and caregivers are simply unable to provide help in the event of a nuclear disaster.”

Scarry also suggested that the United States’ possession of nuclear weapons is robbing citizens of civil rights. She said that the general concerns about nuclear weapons are focused either on the weapons’ susceptibility to accidents or their potential to be seized by terrorist organizations. However, Scarry said that the main issue, in her opinion, is that “nuclear weapons are antithetical to the values of civil society because they wrestle power away from the people and place it in the hands of a few. If we have lost all say over what our military does, we have lost our civil stature.”

In her argument against nuclear proliferation, Scarry cited international laws that are designed to prevent large-scale injury brought about by nuclear weapons. Scarry said that the United States has continuously argued that its nuclear arsenal is not in violation of any international law.

Scarry stressed her fear that the American populace has become complacent about nuclear weapons, and “infantilized to the point where we have effectively given up on the push to eliminate nuclear weapons.” She also argued against the notion that the precedent of the Cuban Missile Crises, in which President Kennedy famously averted nuclear war, would necessarily carry through in the future. She also said that “eight of the United States’ 14 Ohio Class submarines — each of which is capable of producing the damage of 4,000 Hiroshima blasts — were built after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

In addition to drawing on the work of various nuclear disarmament proponents, the talk also touched on the role of nuclear disarmament in generating an environmentally sustainable planet. According to Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, “every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on clean renewable energy and one more spent on making the world a comparatively dirtier and a more dangerous place.”

Junior Ben Walker, who was involved in the Green Amherst Project’s initiative to push the college to divest from fossil fuels, spoke in an interview after the event on the relationship between sound environmental policy and reduction in nuclear weapons.

“Nuclear power presents an environmental worry because of issues with waste disposal. Nuclear waste lasts on time scales that exceed the human imagination,” Walker said.

In the Q&A following the talk, attendees asked questions and shared opinions.. Francis Crowe, a peace activist who has been at the helm of many local and national peace movements, was one of the people who spoke at the Q&A session.

“Once people believed in slavery, not any more. Once people believed in discriminating, not any more. I hope that the younger people will one day say, once ‘people believed in war, not any more,’” Crowe said.

Several local activists also brought up Vincent J. Intondi’s new book, “African Americans Against the Atomic Bomb,” during the Q&A session. In the book, Intondi suggests that African American activists have argued for nuclear disarmament in part because of its connection with civil rights.

The discussion ended on the topic of protest.

“I think we need to reassert our own right to govern, and that requires us to do things that are uncomfortable, like standing in the street,” Scarry concluded.