Dan Elsberg has always been one of those blessed with the gift to make a speech into a little work of art. At the Peace and Planet conference in New York City, on 25 April 2015, this was no different and – hoping he doesn’t mind – I decided to type up his speech in my own words. Borrowing from the master, so to speak.
Dan Elsberg started this time by reminding us of the words of John F. Kennedy at the UN in 1961. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” Now, 54 years later, we are still no further away from cutting that thread. We know now, that we have been extraordinarily close to the end. It is by chance that we survived. It is only by chance if we will continue to survive.
I’ve been interested in the importance of time. And as such, when I was visiting in Hiroshima, I notices a small mistake in the commonly known history of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It is always said that the bomb was dropped at 8:15 in the morning of August 6, 1945. But in the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, amidst all those impressive reminders of the horrors that commenced on that faithful day, I noticed that the watches and clocks in the museum, that stopped when the bomb exploded that morning, due to the electro-magnetic pulse of the explosion, stopped not at 8:15, but at 8:16. For years, I thought this meant that the history books were wrong. The bomb was dropped a minute later. But the fascination for that one minute difference never left me completely. And when I dug deeper into the historical reports of that day, I found that the books were right. And so were the clocks. The bomb was dropped at 8:15. It fell, slowed by parachutes, for almost one minute, 43 seconds to be precise, until it exploded at 8:16, at an altitude of 2000 feet, to maximise the number of destroyed territory and the number of civilians killed.
Imagine those 43 seconds. Until 8:15, it could still have been stopped. The disaster averted. An order could have come to cancel the mission. Or to steer away and find another target. The clouds could still have prevented the drop. Someone, in the long chain of command could until that moment still have said “no”. None of them did. After 8:15, when the Enola Gay sped away to not get caught in the blast, it was too late. Nothing could be done. Except wait until the explosion came.
In those 43 seconds, we know that many parents were bringing their children to school, oblivious of the fact that this would be the last chance to hug them. It was too late. Others I imagine were on their way to work, sleeping in late or eating breakfast with their loved ones. None of them aware of what was to come.
I want you to take your phone and set a timer for 43 seconds. Press the button that released Little Boy. Close your eyes and imagine what you would do, on a normal Monday morning at 8:15. Are you having breakfast, reading the paper with a cup of coffee – planning the day ahead? Are you on the road, to bringing your children to school? All this while, the bomb is falling. It is too late.
When the alarm goes, and the bomb explodes, you will realise that 43 seconds is longer than you think.
Are we too late? That morning in 1945 – did we set something in motion that we cannot stop? It certainly seems that way. 70 years later, there are 8 more states with these weapons – 16000 of them in total. The states possessing them, as well as their allies, claim that they cannot be expected to give them up just now. Rather, they have us believe that the sword is safe with them. That they will make sure the chord will not break. But history shows us differently. We have come extremely close. And we are here by chance.
Are we too late? Should we just hug each other and say ‘I love you’ and accept that any of these states plays with that sword of Damocles, over our heads?