Hate the virus, love the bomb


IMAGE/Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg’s chilling book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner has kept me riveted recently. How would the 2018 book have had any inkling of the Covid-19 disaster stalking the world today? And yet Ellsberg records an amazing human paradox we have lived with for decades, a paradox that toggles between unbridled blood lust and a mortal fear of dying, of seeking to expand human lifespan manifold, brimming with prospects of a greener, happier earth, and of being ready to blow it all up in smoke.

Consider a human ritual often seen in executing condemned convicts — the medical test performed before the prisoner walks to the gallows, or before the lethal injection or the electric chair. Saudi Arabia sedates them before publicly beheading the people it finds deserving of death. So humane. A haunting movie by Gulzar comes to mind, in which the army officer is to be hanged for murdering his wife, but the prisoner attempts a jailbreak and is critically shot. The doctors rejoice at saving the officer’s life but are stupefied to watch him being escorted to the waiting hangman right when he has completely healed.

Observe the bizarreness in a larger world. By unexpectedly rejecting the Security Council proposal last week to put a temporary freeze on ongoing military conflicts around the world in order to fight the pandemic jointly, the US, after initially agreeing to the draft, underscored a peculiar irony. The country is fighting with its back to the wall against the virus that has taken a prohibitive toll of American lives. But President Donald Trump, to use his own words, is keeping his nuclear options cocked and loaded for any eventuality. Ergo, should we survive the Covid-19 outbreak, which is not entirely unlikely, we could yet be dragged to the knackers en masse more sure-footedly. According to the ticking hands of the Doomsday Clock, which currently stand at 100 seconds to midnight, the possibility of a local conflict spiralling out of control looks nearly imminent.

South Asia has three nuclear-armed countries living cheek by jowl in a tense atmosphere. Around this time last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his way to sweeping the elections after projecting his macho nationalism, replete with nuclear sinews, to claim popular support. For the first time in decades, Indian and Pakistani warplanes engaged each other. The news from the Line of Control today is not any more reassuring than it has been, the daily barrage of cross-LoC mortar shelling not being the best confidence-instilling condition between nuclear-armed rivals.

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