Anyone doubting that atomic culture is still alive and well should consider what Stephen Colbert did last week. And no, I'm not talking about how he compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg. No, I'm referring to how he announced the "Colbert Nation's" nuclear weapons program, as a response to a segment that was apparently broadcast on Hannity and Colmes. (Click on "Armed and Ready.") In this segment, a group lobbying for greater awareness of nuclear terrorism brought in a transparent plastic mockup of a gun-type fission bomb (the type of weapon dropped on Hiroshima), which they demonstrated on air as evidence of how easily terrorists could build an A-bomb with stolen U-235.
This was ironic in itself, but Colbert's response was hilarious. In character as always, he expressed dismay that Colmes had the bomb, although he also noted that he felt that Hannity was definitely trustworthy enough to be trusted with nukes. In any case, the response was clear- for Colbert to trump Colmes' A-bomb with an H-bomb. Then assistants carried a thoroughly preposterous plastic mockup of an "H-bomb" onto the set and placed it on Colbert's C-shaped news desk. I'm not sure how much of the audience realized it, but this "H-bomb" bore no resemblence to the actual device- in fact, its opertating principle seemed more in line with a Skee-Ball machine than anything else. It basically consisted of a long tube in which "uranium" spheres rolled into one another. The "thermonuclear" portion consisted of a small nondescript box tacked onto the end of the whole affair.
What is Colbert going to do with the bomb? That was left unclear. Apparently, possesing nukes is an end unto itself. Colbert's performance speaks volumes about atomic culture in contemporary America. Unfortunately, Colbert's theater of the absurd bears a considerable resemblence to reality- and that's the point. Although it's certainly nothing new, people in all levels of society engage in magical thinking about nuclear weapons. Much of the current debate about nuclear weapons seems determined to ignore the considerable scholarship developed over the past sixty years on the topic. Recently, the topic of nuclear war has once again been brought to the forefront again by Iran's nuclear program. Seymour Hersh has reported that planning for a potential nuclear strike on Iran, and President Bush has refused to explicitly repudiate Hersh's claims. Is Hersh right? I pray to God that he's not, but I think there are good reasons to believe he is. In future posts, I will explore the implications of nuclear weapons past, present, and future.