BOSTON -- This is only a test, as they used to say when the high-pitched hum of the Emergency Broadcast System pierced the air. Only a test.
So too, when the nuclear weapons rumbled under the northwest desert of India last week, it was only a test. But the sense of alarm was palpable and this time the most dispiriting sound came from the Indian people.
The Hindu government asserted its membership in the Big Boys Club five times and the people responded happily, exuberantly. Posters boasted "We Welcome N-Tests." Polls bragged of 91 percent in favor of testing. Young Hindus signed their approval in blood.
The country that was first to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons 40 years ago is now rejoicing in becoming a nuclear power. It's as if nuclear weapons were a dose of Viagra to the national pride.
Our own response to this event is, and should be, dismay. But even now it's easy to understand the Hindu government spokesman who said testily of America, "They are sitting on a mountain of nuclear arms and they are pontificating to India and the world."
Indeed this is the subtext of events in the subcontinent that seem to have shaken the world out of its nuclear comfort zone.
Last Thanksgiving, President Clinton said: "In this new world, our children are growing up free from the shadows of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust." Not exactly. This week he criticized India for embracing weapons when "everyone else is trying to leave the nuclear age behind us." Not precisely.
The two charter members of the nuclear club have reduced their arsenals from the overkill of 100,000 weapons to the overkill of 35,000. Our missiles no longer point at each other, but they are still on hair-trigger alert.
The Cold War that produced a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union is over. But it is obvious the nuclear age is not over.
"At the end of the Cold War, people reacted quite rightly with a huge sigh of relief" says Jonathan Schell, whose first book, "The Fate of the Earth" helped mobilize the anti-nuclear movement of the '80s. "But they mistakenly thought nuclear danger had finally disappeared and that was a terrible illusion."
The old holocaust scenario -- a deliberate confrontation between U.S. and U.S.S.R. -- has just been transformed into a new scenario; a holocaust caused by accident and/or proliferation.
Even before the alarm from India and Pakistan, a new wave of anti-nuclear strategists had begun to emerge from the pleasant fog of relief. The assumption of the second nuclear age is that we can only move in one of two directions. In the words of Lachlan Forrow, co-author of a grim assessment of accidental nuclear war in a recent New England Journal of Medicine, "Either large numbers of countries will have nuclear weapons and sooner or later use them, or we'll have a global agreement to ban all of them."
The new abolitionists, anti-nuclear activitists including retired -- why are they always retired? -- generals and admirals, now talk about how, and not whether, we can eliminate nuclear weapons. A coalition of groups, Abolition 2000, plans to bring a proposition before town meetings in support of an agreement committing the world to the permanent elimination of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Schell himself has written a sober and elegiac new book, "The Gift of Time," that sets out the arguments and methods to "get us out of the zone of mass slaughter." The abolitionists he describes differ from the arms control community. Instead of disarming "vertically" by reducing the number of weapons while leaving the rest in full operation, they want to disarm "horizontally" by dismantling the hair-trigger alert first, then gradually disassembling and dispersing the weapons one part at a time.
It's 13 years since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev said, "Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." It's two years since the Indian government said it would sign the test ban if we would agree to a timetable for eliminating nuclear weapons. And we refused.
There is no way to abolish the knowledge of nuclear weapons. But we need the imagination to think through the ways and means of ratcheting down the terror.
The arms race between India and Pakistan grabs our attention through fear. But abolitionists count on hope as well.
We have, writes Mr. Schell, "an opportunity to end the forced cohabitation with horror, the shotgun marriage with final absurdity, to snap out of the trance of the Cold War . . . and take the step that alone can free us from nuclear danger and corruption, namely the abolition of nuclear weapons."
That is, after all, the ultimate test.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/19/98