Hold the Mushrooms

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Wow, the weapons heavies had to cut and run. A sense of enlightened self-interest — the same stuff that legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky was preaching in Chicago’s Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood six decades ago — enabled a bunch of little guys out West to stare down the future of nuclear warfare, and win.

This unprecedented development must be savored. Divine Strake, the simulated nuclear blast the Defense Threat Reduction Agency was initially planning to set off nine months ago at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas — which would have raised a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud of god-knows-what — has been scrapped for good. After several postponements and a round of power-point presentations at various locations downwind of the test site that did nothing but fuel people’s outrage, it ain’t gonna happen.

“There was such a public outcry,” said Salt Lake City resident Mary Dickson of Downwinders, one of the organizations leading the fight against the blast, the possibility of which revived hellish memories of the era of above-ground testing that ended in 1962. “I like to think the people will prevail, so I can go on thinking this fighting we do does matter,” Dickson, a cancer survivor, told me. “I just want people to know, if they think they can’t make a difference, look at this case.”

“Back in the ’50s,” said Idahoan Preston Truman, who heads Downwinders, “we were given a booklet on the first day of kindergarten that said, ‘You people who live near the test site are, in a very real sense, active participants in this nation’s testing program.’ Well, I think it just got demonstrated!”

But banding together Alinsky-style to thwart the powers that be and stop a test blast isn’t what the era’s propaganda writers had in mind. That it was the last thing they had in mind is more than just bitter irony. It’s a raw example of the unfinished nature of American democracy, and the struggle ordinary citizens still have — well, let’s face it, it’s never-ending — to wrest control of their destiny from virulent special interests.

And there’s no special interest more virulent, or arrogant, than the weapons establishment: “I don’t want to sound glib here,” DTRA director James Tegnelia told reporters a year ago, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, “but it is the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons.”

As of March 2006, a sham “environmental impact” study had been conducted and the big blast, composed of 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, was seemingly a done deal, scheduled to be detonated in June within a mile of a radioactive hot spot at the test site. A total of 928 above- and below-ground nuclear tests had been conducted there between 1951 and 1992, and millions of people — the Downwinders — reaped the horrific consequences of the fallout they were told was perfectly benign.

The “active participation” assigned to them, it turns out, was to die quietly of cancer and not make a fuss.

Well, enough is enough. People saw clearly that the horror of the Cold War era was about to begin again, with Tegnelia’s lurid and clueless remark about a new mushroom cloud having a galvanizing effect on residents in four states — Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana — in the immediate vicinity of the site. Massive opposition, cutting across all political lines, formed immediately. The Downwinders had a clear, intractable message for the weapons industry: “You’re not going to make another generation of us!”

The stunning political diversity of the opposition speaks volumes. Conservative Republicans, such as Utah’s Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. — who described himself as “jubilant” about Divine Strake’s cancellation — were in the front lines of the opposition, right next to antiwar progressives.

This conveys a crucial truth: A new, complex rationality is gaining political traction in American life. The logic of violence is deeply flawed and its paradoxes, which transcend ideology, are coming home to roost. The drive to create a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons (e.g., bunker busters), of which Divine Strake was a part, has the glaring flaw, which government propaganda can no longer mask, of poisoning U.S. citizens in its testing and production phases. Even “strong defense” patriots see the problem with this, at least when it affects them and their loved ones.

From here, the logic for a new kind of society, a new national purpose, gains momentum. Surely no Downwinder who fought Divine Strake merely wanted the test site moved elsewhere (“Bomb Indiana instead!”). The test was wrong, period. And a growing number of people are coming to grasp that actually using such weapons on an “enemy” population would be worse, by a factor of thousands or millions, than just testing it. And slowly we are withdrawing the government’s mandate to perpetuate a violent world.

But there’s such a long way to go, and the cost of enlightened self-interest is so high. When I asked Dickson what was next for her, she noted that a friend and fellow activist had just been diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. “We take care of the people who are still dying,” she said. “It’s never over for us.”