The Morality of Bombs

February 11, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- The end of the Cold War has taken the doomsday note out of our politics. We have relaxed a bit. We have begun to cut defense spending (but not enough). There is talk of bringing our troops home, from various places and at various stages.

But one thing we tend to forget, until given sharp reminders from Ukraine or from North Korea, is that the world is still chock full of nuclear weaponry, and access to nuclear material and knowledge is growing fast. For instance, all those nuclear experts suddenly out of work behind what was once the Iron Curtain may want to do something with their investment of time and intellect in the creation of destructive implements.

We are learning one sad little side lesson about the danger involved in nuclear technology as our government's record of radiation experiments comes out. How can we censure others for risking the world's well-being with radioactive games when we have engaged in them ourselves?

The intrinsic immorality of creating weapons whose effect is disproportionate to any moral use they might have is a basic insight that few people keep focused in their minds. One of those few is Philip Berrigan, the crusader against the bomb, who reminds me of 19th-century abolitionists. They said that slavery is immoral, not to be tolerated, although everyone around them said this view was nice but impractical, that slavery was just one of the bad things you have to learn to put up with, that getting rid of it was unthinkable.

So, when Mr. Berrigan's arguments are not heeded, he takes action. And he always has friends willing to help him -- friends such as John Dear, a Jesuit priest, and Bruce Friedrich, and Linn Frederiksson. These are newcomers to the campaign that the 70-year-old Mr. Berrigan has spent most of his life on. Yet now all four of them sit in a North Carolina jail, held without bond since before Christmas, and facing trial February 22 for destroying government property.

The property was a nuclear delivery bomber. The four people climbed a fence early one morning and vandalized an F-15E. What a strange world it is. Some people find excuses for those who attack human beings (for example, doctors who perform abortions), but they become irate when Philip Berrigan attacks machines that kill people. Others say we should confiscate and destroy handguns. But this ''gun,'' which can blow up a city with its cargo, is pampered as if it were itself a baby.

Some say that Mr. Berrigan and his activist friends (including his brother, Daniel, and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister) cannot prick our consciences. We are deadened to activism as well as argument, to theater as well as theory. If so, how sad -- for us more than for them.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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