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False Hawaii nuclear-attack alert came with a reminder

By Jim Creskey      

Any nuclear early warning system is at best a fool’s game.

Columnist Jim Creskey says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could follow in the footsteps of his father, Pierre Trudeau, and take more action to further nuclear disarmament. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade, Rob Mieremet/Dutch national archives photograph
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OTTAWA—The erroneous warning about an impending nuclear missile attack on Hawaii Jan. 13 came with the reminder that any nuclear early-warning system is at best a fool’s game.

The idea of a civilian early-warning system against a nuclear attack was debunked more than 60 years ago precisely because nuclear weapons have as their primary target the immediate destruction of large civilian populations. No ordinary citizen can expect to “take shelter” from a nuclear attack. The secondary and predictable bomb effects range from the long-term poisoning of living spaces and the environment with highly carcinogenic radioactivity to a catastrophic effect on climate.

At the height of the Cold War, nuclear-attack shelters were officially designated and citizens were told, indeed forced by law in places like New York City, to take cover during atomic bomb air-raid drills.

The attack alerts, in effect a scare tactic that would train a fearful public to support massive spending on nuclear-weapons systems, were eventually dropped.

Over the years, many world leaders who once held the power to launch a nuclear attack or who promoted massive investments in nuclear weapons came to recant their views, having reflected on how things work from the inside. From Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Henry Kissinger, knowledge of this great evil became, in their old age, a reason to search for ways to achieve mutual nuclear weapons disarmament rather than promote a policy of mutually assured nuclear-weapons destruction.

So far, although some admirable starts have been made, they have failed to meet this necessary objective.

It makes one wonder how the civilian population in any country can tolerate the holding and continued development of weapons that are designed to destroy civilians.

It also causes one to wonder how the citizens of any country that has disavowed the holding of nuclear weapons do not insist that its leaders do their best to convince the nuclear nations to begin a verified program of total, global disarmament. That needs to be said again: total disarmament.

The technical means and the financing exist for a worldwide destruction of all nuclear weapons and for the creation of a sophisticated international monitoring program to ensure that no new weapons are created. The insanity of mutually assured destruction can be replaced with the sanity of mutually verified trust.

Does this sound like utopian pie in the sky? Not when the alternative is a predictable doomsday set off by design, mistake, or a non-state terror group. Weapons that are built and held eventually get deployed whether purposely or by accident.

Warning systems give little comfort

There is no protection granted by nuclear-missile warning systems, nor is there any lasting protection granted by anti-ballistic missile systems, which like the warning systems only serve to propagandize a torpid public into believing that security lies in spending on the latest weapon or anti-weapon.

This false warning of an impending nuclear missile attack on Hawaii stirred panic among residents of the islands on Jan. 13. Officials blamed an emergency worker hitting the wrong button during a routine drill.

This is what more than 1,000 of Canada’s best and brightest—members, officers, and companions of the Order of Canada—have been calling for in their plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They are asking for Canada’s support for “a legally binding instrument to prohibit the possession and use of nuclear weapons—paralleling the treaties prohibiting chemical and biological weapons.”

Trudeau will have to draw on some personal courage to be able to tell Canada’s closest and most powerful ally Canada supports the United Nations resolution for nuclear disarmament. It won’t be easy. The United States government has long pressured Canada and other allies to blindly support its nuclear-weapons position. The most recent UN declaration for nuclear disarmament has met with a good deal of diplomatic strong-arming from the U.S.

In fact, the PM will have to reverse himself, having previously stated in the Commons that the treaty is “useless” unless it is signed by the nuclear-weapons states. His reversal of this position would not be a politically self-serving “flip-flop,” but an act of courage.

Yes, it will take guts, especially with a U.S. president like Donald Trump, but peacemaking courage does run in the Trudeau family.

There was a brief time in Canada’s history when U.S. nuclear weapons were installed in North Bay, Ont. and near Mont Tremblant, Que. Former prime minster Pierre Trudeau called for and oversaw their removal. His disarmament speech to the UN in 1978 wasn’t very popular in Washington either.

Joined in alliances with three out of the world’s five nuclear weapon states at the time, Trudeau nevertheless stood firm on Canada’s position for disarmament:

“We are, nonetheless, a country that has renounced the production of nuclear weapons or acquisition of such weapons under our control.

“We have withdrawn from any nuclear role by Canada’s armed forces in Europe and are now in the process of replacing with conventionally armed aircraft the nuclear-capable planes still assigned to our forces in North America. We are thus not only the first country in the world with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons that chose not to do so; we are also the first nuclear-armed country to have chosen to divest itself of nuclear arms,” Trudeau said.

I wish his son would bravely admit an earlier mistake and, taking the next step, tell our American ally that Canada will now sign the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

A treaty that bars signatory nations from “developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons under any circumstances” will do the Americans more good than they realize.

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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