The Call to a New Moral Imperative

By Jonathan Granoff

(Adapted from the author’s remarks at the Sarah Smith Memorial Conference at YDS in September 2008, with research assistance from Matt Werner)

Nuclear weapons represent a thoroughly modern dilemma, whereby the means of pursuing security actually undermine security itself. The more we perfect these deadly devices, the less security we obtain.

In our time it appears we have forgotten the “why” and become preoccupied with the “how.” We end up with art without beauty, philosophy without truth, medicine without healing, law without justice, religion without transcendence or moral compass – and weapons without security.

Nuclear weapons pose insupportable, intolerable ethical problems because of their overwhelming destructive capacity on innocents, the environment, and future generations. A core hypocrisy underwrites it all. The possession of these weapons and the readiness of a handful of countries to use them upgrades their perceived value and thus stimulates their proliferation and undermines efforts to control their spread. As Brazil’s former Ambassador Sergio Duarte said in 2005: “(O)ne cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect.”

Yet neither the contradiction in policy nor the unacceptable risks posed get sufficient public notice.

Love of Power vs. Power of Love

Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, formerly of Yale, once described our failure to deal clearly and rationally with nuclear weapons as a collective form of psychic numbing. When one contemplates the horrific capacity of nuclear weapons and the readiness and preparation for their use sustained through enormous costs of money and intelligence, one must either confront this evil of destructive creativity head on and grasp it in its fullness, or turn away and turn off. Most people find it too difficult to face.

That is just one reason why it is so important that all religious leaders give people the spiritual, psychic capacity to deal with this issue. I believe the only way of overcoming such an evil is through a committed engagement based on love. This love must be founded on a deep sense of the reverence for the miracle and sanctity of life and respect for personal moral duties.

Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate quest of the love of power, and the opposing theological message must be that we truly believe in the power of love. This sovereign faith lives in the human spirit regardless of the evidence of the times. It is a faith in God’s blessing and the human capacity to manifest its essence in action. The message of real faith is to rely on the redemptive capacity of this love despite the fact that history may appear to deny the possibility of such redemption.

If any group can look people in the eye and give them the courage to deal with the nuclear issue in a rational fashion, I think it is faith-based people.

Is not faith all about the possibility of redemption? Is not the preparation to destroy life on the planet in an afternoon to defend an idea or a “way of life” a denial of such faith?

Let us bring some sense of reality to all this. A relatively small device, approximately 15 kilotons or 15,000 tons of TNT equivalent, was dropped on Nagasaki in World War II. This is the size of merely the triggering mechanisms on most of today’s huge weapons.

When the International Court of Justice addressed whether the threat or use of a nuclear weapon is legal under international law in 1995,1 Mayor Iccho Itoh of Nagasaki testified as follows:

“The explosion of the atomic bomb generated an enormous fireball, 200 meters in radius, almost as though a small sun had appeared in the sky. The next instant, a ferocious blast and wave of heat assailed the ground with a thunderous roar. The surface temperature of the fireball was about 7,000 degrees C, and the heat rays that reached the ground were over 3,000 degrees C.

The explosion instantly killed or injured people within a two-kilometer radius of the hypocenter, leaving innumerable corpses charred like clumps of charcoal and scattered in the ruins near the hypocenter. In some cases not even a trace of the person’s remains could be found. The blast wind of over 300 meters per second slapped down trees and demolished most buildings. Even iron- reinforced concrete structures were so badly damaged that they seemed to have been smashed by a giant hammer. The fierce flash of heat, meanwhile, melted glass and left metal objects contorted like strands of taffy, and the subsequent fires burned the ruins of the city to ashes.

Nagasaki became a city of death where not even the sounds of insects could be heard.

After a while, countless men, women, and children began to gather for a drink of water at the banks of nearby Urakami River, their hair and clothing scorched and their burnt skin hanging off in sheets like rags. Begging for help, they died one after another in the water or in heaps on the banks.

Then radiation began to take its toll, killing people like a scourge of death expanding in concentric circles from the hypocenter. Four months after the atomic bombing, 74,000 were dead and 75,000 had suffered injuries. That is, two-thirds of the city population had fallen victim to this calamity that came upon Nagasaki like a preview of the Apocalypse.”

The mayor noted that those who were lucky enough to survive continue to this day to suffer from the lasting effects unique to nuclear weaponry.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a deadly waltz that on several occasions, because of computer miscalculations as well as human error, nearly turned into the final danse macabre. Arguably, because both sides believed they faced mutual existential threats, there was a coherent rationale for maintaining a mutual deterrence policy. Each side had thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready in order to discourage the other from ever using them. Each maintained a sufficient capacity to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage to ensure that the other side would not use its weapons. The entire enterprise was and still is riddled with paradox – the willingness to use the weapons serves as a core principle to prevent their use. It only works if your adversary is convinced you are willing to use the weapons.

Now, more than a decade has passed since the Cold War ended. Russia and the United States, with more than 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, are no longer existential threats to one another. Yet, we still place at the ready more than enough nuclear weapons to bring about nuclear winter several times over. This will continue to be the case even if we go down to 1,000 warheads each.

What is the great threat that we pose to one another that causes us to continue to place the very web of life at risk? Are we such enemies to warrant this readiness to kill billions of innocent people? What is our attitude toward the right of future generations to inherit this planet? 

If this is not an abomination that every minister in this country should address, then I don’t know what is. This posture of perpetuation of the doctrine of deterrence and failure to negotiate universal, legally verifiable nuclear weapons abolition flies in the face of our national identity as a nation based on the rule of law. Both by the unanimous declaration of the International Court of Justice and under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we are under an obligation to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons2.

The NPT entered into force in 1970. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis both the KGB and the CIA concluded that without some legal constraint there would be dozens of nuclear weapons states by the 1970s. The NPT contains a bargain. Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. – the five nuclear weapons states under the treaty – promised to move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, and in exchange 182 states have by now committed to restrain themselves from developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the treaty guarantees the right of non-nuclear nations to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear technology and energy.

In 1995, the 187 nations of the world who are parties to the NPT assembled, under a clause in the treaty that compelled its review after 25 years, to decide whether the treaty would be indefinitely extended. All five nuclear weapons states, including the United States, pledged explicitly to move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons in exchange for the indefinite extension of the NPT – and that promise contained within it an agreement that every five years nuclear disarmament progress would be reviewed.

In 2000, all but three nations in the world (India, Pakistan, and Israel stayed outside the treaty) agreed unequivocally to undertake the total elimination of nuclear weapons and laid out 13 practical steps toward that goal, while at the same time lowering no country’s security interests.

What were some of those practical steps? Look at how reasonable they were – a test-ban treaty, a cut-off in the production of fissile material in order to keep control of the materials, a lowering of the operational status of the weapons, and making the nuclear-arsenal cuts in Russia and the United States more transparent and irreversible.

Our ambassador at the time, Robert Grey, said those commitments are the guiding light for the nonproliferation and disarmament efforts of the United States.

Yet at the 2005 Review Conference of the NPT, the U.S. said it would not have its previous commitments reviewed and insisted there should only be discussion of nonproliferation issues. We declared we would not have our disarmament commitments reviewed, essentially saying that the promises we make to this NPT body today we will not be held to account for tomorrow. This was an attack on the institution of the rule of law itself.

“What Is America About?”

This situation must change. We must live up to our commitments to fulfill our legal responsibilities. As citizens we cannot allow our promises to the rest of the world to be tossed aside flippantly, wantonly, brazenly, egregiously. We cannot leave the rest of the world wondering, “What is America about? Your Constitution says treaties are the supreme law of the land. You’ve made this commitment. Should you not be held to account like the rest of us? Is not law to be applied to the powerful as well as the weak? Are not the police also subject to the same laws as everyone else?”

As we face the ultimate evil, if we don’t have the reins of law and morality, then what tools of organizing human conduct are we relying upon?

This is such a basic moral issue – and yet it’s not being preached from the pulpit, it’s not being taught at Yale Divinity School as a moral imperative, it’s not being taught in the evangelical community as the greatest affront to the reverence of life, and it’s not being talked about in any sane rational way in the media. How do we overcome this inertia?

I think we stand at a unique moment in history, where a profound and perennial spiritual imperative has become an urgent, practical admonition. The spiritual imperative – to love my neighbor as myself – is something nations have to start taking quite seriously. We need to treat other nations as we want to be treated. There has always been a spiritual admonition to see the human family as one, to have love in your heart, to not kill. What’s unique now is that policies that realize our common interests have become a practical necessity. The practical and the moral have come together.

Nukes are not just about nukes. The issue is how we deal with our intellectual gifts and the application of science and technology. How do we protect the global commons, the living systems we depend upon – the climate of the oceans, the ozone, the rainforests? What we need is a universal regime replete with customs, codes, laws, and treaties based on our shared interests in a healthy environment. In a world in which the security of some is claimed to be so superior to the security of others, where eight nuclear nations say, in effect, “We have a right to weapons of mass destruction and we claim an excessive amount of the global commons of security” – in such a world, do you think that other countries will forsake short-term economic or political opportunity for long-term environmental responsibility and work together as one human community to protect the global commons, which includes the oceans and the climate? I don’t think they will. I think this issue is the symbolic litmus test for whether we will work as a human community – or pursue this domination model, which I think is impractical, immoral, and illegal.

This temptation to domination goes to the heart of how we shape the debate about nuclear weapons. In America, for instance, I think there are two major theological narratives regarding the legitimacy and authority of the State – the egalitarian and the domination models. The first is the narrative of Tom Paine, the philosophy of John Locke, and the Quakers in Philadelphia who said the light of God is in everybody. They tried to move that way at the beginning of the republic, never quite fully succeeding. Yet the idea survived that the authority and legitimacy of the State comes from the will of the people, and that the conscience of the people can speak in the State as the basis of that authority. It’s an egalitarian spirituality, a unique American idea and political philosophy. Addressing those others who believed their singular interpretation of Scripture is the be-all and end-all and the only legitimate source of authority, they said we must put a barrier between Church and State. They were very aware of the hazards of religious manipulation and how easily it could succeed.

Full-spectrum Dominance

The second narrative, the domination model, says we should go back to the covenant at Plymouth Rock as the basis of America’s authority and legitimacy. We thus claim a special status as a nation: we have a special destiny, a right and a duty to impose our will on the world. It rationalizes for a few who would claim superior insights to rule through law rather than being ruled by law. Claims of manifest destiny, special duties such as waging wars in countries in the developing world to save them for democracy, and other self-serving visions usually resort to this American exceptionalism to rationalize such exercise of state power. This hierarchical model is consistent with the discredited interpretation of a unitary executive above judicial review or legislative oversight. It is implicit in the policy calling for the ability to dominate the whole planet earth as well as outer space and a global precision strike force to enforce that dominance. The policy was called “full-spectrum dominance” in documents such as Joint Vision 2020 created during the 1990s and robustly funded during the Bush administration. Though the phrase is no longer emphasized, the policy it expresses remains viable as evidenced by the practices of STRATCOM, the government agency tasked with nuclear planning.3 I think that is a theological concept, and I think it is blasphemy – the idea that any small group of people would want to have “full-spectrum dominance” of the world. That’s God’s duty.

This aspiration for global dominance is ironic. America was created in reaction to an overreaching empire. What happened?

This kind of domination thinking issues forth from fear. Playing to the narrative of fear ensures conservative voting. I call it the “Ching Ling Lang Abdul Gomez Borovsky Syndrome.” The archetype of the ugly “other” whom I shall call Ching Ling Lang Abdul Gomez Borovsky can manifest as Manuel Noriega, Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, or a guy named Borovsky. He is the dark fearful shadow in our culture. But he doesn’t have nuclear weapons. If he had nuclear weapons, he would have used them. He would have threatened to use them, for sure.

There are evil forces out there, no doubt, but if we’re serious about making ourselves safe, the first thing we would do is put real money into safeguarding the nuclear materials needed to make a bomb. We need to get the facts out. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency has never spent more than $120 million in an entire year to do its inspections throughout the whole world. We spend far more than that in a day in our country alone on the nation’s nuclear arsenal. We spend more than $52 billion a year on this hazard-inducing venture.

If we were serious about making ourselves safe, we would strengthen the international inspection regime and ensure strict international control of the more than 3,500 tons of fissile materials, plutonium and highly enriched uranium that have collected all over the world. That is an essential step in addressing the dangers of terrorists getting a bomb.

But progress is being thwarted because progress means truly working in a cooperative way based on law with many nations, and such steps, so think our military planners, constitute a constraint on U.S. military choices that could lead eventually to actual nuclear disarmament.

So we must ask exactly against whom are the weapons useful? Nuclear weapons are of no value against terrorists, they’re suicidal to use against a country that has them, and it’s patently immoral to use them against a country that doesn’t have them. So why do we have them? We have them because of this fear of Ching Ling Lang Abdul Gomez Borovsky, an abstract imaginary threat. We have them because we’re operating under the paradigm of “weapons bring strength, and the ultimate weapons bring ultimate strength,” and we don’t want to let it go. But the fact is, our possession of the weapon is stimulating the proliferation of the weapon.

Challenging Reckless Theologies

So I think the best thing we could do is undertake an honest debate about it. Challenge the reckless theology of those who feel that the whole world is fallen, and that only their group is saved – challenge their eschatology and declare that they don’t have a right to put creation at risk. Challenge the political rhetoric of fear rather than reason whenever it is brought up. When Condoleeza Rice threw a cloud of fear over the U.S. by saying, “Don’t let the next 9/11 be a mushroom cloud,” knowing full well her implication was a distortion of factual threats, she effectively cut off rational debate, and our policies suffered.

If any group can look people in the eye and give them the courage to deal with the nuclear issue in a rational fashion, I think it is faith-based people. Religious leaders must give people enough faith simply to deal with the truth of how the world really is. “Veritas fortissima” – truth is the strongest.

What is the next step? First we must demand of all our political leaders: what are you doing to eliminate nuclear weapons?

Second, what if the religious community took the position that their funds can’t be invested in companies that made weapons of mass destruction? That’s what we did here in the U.S. with apartheid in the 1980s.

What if Yale University adopted such a policy today? What if you started a debate that said Yale should not invest in companies that make weapons of mass destruction? What if you made that a debate right here at Yale Divinity School, starting tomorrow? Make it a moral call from Yale’s school of divinity to say: this is an issue of moral concern to us, and as horrific as apartheid is, what about nuclear apartheid? It is wrong that some countries can say, “We are privileged, we have a right to destroy the creation, and you don’t.” The answer is not that everybody should have the right; the answer is that no one should have the right, and Yale should start a debate right now.

It would not be alone. Norway is currently the third largest oil exporter in the world. In order to capitalize on its oil wealth, the Norwegian Parliament established the Government Petroleum Fund in 1990. Today it is the second largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The Fund is considered one of the world’s finest in terms of its transparency. More controversial, however, has been Norway’s implementation of ethical guidelines to govern the Fund’s investments. Since 2002, 27 companies have been excluded from the portfolio on ethical grounds. The total value of these exclusions is approximately $3 billion.

The ethical guidelines are based on two key premises – to generate wealth in a socially responsible fashion and to exclude investments that pose an unacceptable risk of contributing to violations of fundamental humanitarian principles, human rights, corruption, or environmental degradation.

Would it not be an enormous contribution to a safer, saner world if Yale could be the first American university to challenge the madness of nuclear weapons by adopting guidelines in the investment of its funds as Norway has done? Might that not start a similar investment review in other universities and churches, synagogues, and mosques? At least let us open the subject up to serious, morally informed debate. Our silence allows the ultimate risk to persist.

Jonathan Granoff is an attorney, author, and public advocate advancing ethical foundations for the rule of law, greater levels of interfaith cooperation, peace, and the universal legally verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. He is president of the Global Security Institute. (see


1 International Court of Justice, docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=4&code=unan&case=95 &k=e1

2 Granoff, Jonathan. “Nuclear Weapons, Ethics, Morals, and Law.” Brigham Young University Law Review 4 (2000), 1413-1442, http://www.gsinstitute. org/gsi/docs/gran_12-9-00.pdf

3 For analysis: Vision2020_Analysis.pdf
As policy: newsarticle.aspx?id=45289