Forgotten, but Not Gone

November 24, 1993|By JACK L. LEVIN

As a frequent participant in groups discussing current concerns, I am struck by their downgrading or elimination of the threat of nuclear annihilation as an important issue. The matter is rarely mentioned any more by editorialists, pundits and talk-show hosts exploring more titillating topics.

The collapse of the Evil Empire has taken the steam out of the issue of atomic mass suicide. We are Number One, and Number Two has crumpled like a deflated balloon, so why worry?

We know, of course, that even if all the agreed-upon reduction of nuclear weapons is observed to the letter, Number Two will still have enough left to reduce Number One to a mass of contaminated ruins. And what about Numbers Three, Four, Five, Six and the rest? Fourteen countries, including four Soviet successor states disposing 45,000 weapons among them, are mentioned in the Army War College ''World 2010'' estimates of nuclear-weapons powers. Are they all to be expunged from our priority list of major concerns because some of them will not be ready for mass destruction until next year or five years from now?

Are we counting on some new technological wizardry to save us from ourselves? Or have we abandoned hope that we can do anything about the death machine suspended over our heads? Have we concluded that what will be must be and decided to concentrate on Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti? In that case we are resigned to the same fate as the terrifying monsters of Jurassic Park who for millions of years roamed and ruled the earth as we do now, but who somehow vanished. Science tells us that dinosaurs were the masters of creation for more than a hundred million years before the first primal ancestors of man appeared only some 5 million years ago. If the dinosaurs had any capacity for thinking, they must have thought they would surely be around forever, as do we.

The difference between us and them is that they could not see extinction coming -- and we can.

It is likely that, in the next few thousand years at least, we won't have to worry about comets and asteroids hurtling into our planet from outer space, or about a new glacial age brought on by the greenhouse effect, or about any of the phantasmagoric nightmares of science fiction. Moreover, we are at the top of the food chain. Other animals do not eat us, we eat them. We have no real enemies left -- none, that is, but one: ourselves.

What does offer the possibility of instant extinction of our kind is the combination of nature with human nature, the invention of a way to use the most powerful forces in nature to exterminate ourselves.

Can there be any doubt that the Serbs, Croats and Muslims of the former Yugoslavia would be doing their ethnic cleansing with atomic weaponry if they had it? Or that the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar el Kadafi and the Iranian ayatollahs would justify a nuclear attack if they thought they could get away with it? Or that China, the upcoming superpower, is developing its nuclear technology and has joined the former U.S.S.R. in peddling it to rogue regimes?

With world population figures exploding, especially in Third World countries that cannot produce enough food, jobs or resources to sustain their growing masses, is there not enormous pressure on nature and human nature to wipe out problems now that the means to do so are available?

For the soundest reason -- to save hundreds of thousands of lives of American servicemen who might have been lost in an invasion of Japan to end World War II -- we unleashed the first atomic monster on the world. Now, for an equally sound reason, to save perhaps a billion lives, we must kill off the monster's progeny.

We may have it still within our power to control and even to change our nature which controls the seeds of our destruction. We may yet find find ways to prevent Homo sapiens from becoming as extinct as the triassic reptiles.

The first step is to restore to the national agenda an issue that is not getting enough attention.

Second, we must develop plans for getting genocidal weapons out of the hands of unstable individuals in seats of power all over our endangered planet. Signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should recommit themselves to carrying out the treaty, and strive to involve other nations in the commitment.

Third, beginning with Janu- ary's Geneva Conference on a permanent ban, we must put talks to reduce and eliminate nuclear arms back on the front burner.

Fourth, efforts must be intensified to shut down the nuclear black market that is growing, especially in former Soviet states. The black-market price for plutonium is said to be $50 million a kilogram, and business is booming with Korea and Iran.

We must kill our monstrous creatures before they kill us. And if that means changing human nature, let's start to work on it. After only 5 million years -- a mere moment in geologic time -- it's still malleable.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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