OTTAWA—Sister Virginia walked up and down the aisles in the packed classroom. Swinging from the waist of her black woollen habit was a large metal crucifix. Sometimes it would clunk against a wooden desktop like an exclamation point at the end of something she had just said.
At that moment, she was saying: “Everyone under your desks.” We could hear the sirens blowing from the hook-and-ladder company firehouse a few blocks away.
“Should we close the windows, Sister?” one of the students asked.
“I don’t think it would help, even if it were a real A-bomb attack,” she said, “besides it’s too hot.”
That was in the fall of 1953 only eight years after the United States had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Several boys in the eighth-grade class were enjoying the opportunity to surreptitiously peak up the skirts of the girls who were crouching under the small desks. But virtually everyone else harboured the unspoken suspicion that the exercise was pointless. Ducking under a school desk in the face of the one weapon whose whole point was to wipe out a civilian population was clearly stupid. Civil defence against nuclear war and its obligatory air-raid drills was a deception. Few if any us 12- and 13-year-olds would have been able to articulate that, but we knew something was wrong. Maybe that was why so many kids of my generation had nuclear-bomb nightmares.
Fast-forward 35 years.
The place is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and I’m standing over some concrete steps that once were attached to a bank not far from ground zero. The steps are sheltered inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In the middle of the steps there is what looks like a silk-screen shadow image of a sitting person. The person might have been waiting for the bank to open when the bomb exploded at 8:16 a.m. when he or she was vaporized by the nuclear flash.
It made me think of us eighth-grade kids curled up under our desks at Immaculate Conception elementary school in New York City, waiting for the sirens to stop.
I never got to visit the other nuclear bombsite, Nagasaki. That was where the second atomic bomb was dropped three days later at 11:02 a.m. It turned a Catholic Church filled with morning worshippers to ashes and rubble. The church was named the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
I know that some people find it possible to visit Hiroshima and still tolerate the continued production of weapons of mass destruction. I don’t understand how they can do this. The river of excuses, the justifications, and the defence rationale flow without ceasing. Then they mix with the high-minded words that are regularly spoken by officials who visit the Hiroshima peace monument.
Here’s some of what United States President Barack Obama said there last week: “But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.
“We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.”
Sadly, the president, a serious and sensitive man who last week was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima after the bombing, appears trapped in the same logic of fear he describes, unable to make the one bold disarmament move that is needed to destroy every last nuclear weapon.
He must know that the time is rapidly passing for America to do that.
Jim Creskey is the founding editor and the publisher of The Hill Times.
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