by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
It is purposeful that the blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer” opened during this July-August period. The dates for the epic-changing breakthrough of the film’s main character, nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, are imprinted on human memory:
- Atomic bomb tested – July 16, 1945
- First use – August 6, 1945
- Second use – August 9, 1945
Watching the movie now with 78 years of collective hindsight is to grasp the unspeakable horror that was unleashed on humanity and Planet Earth at that moment in time. And to realize that we can never go back to a pre-nuclear age; the human family must forever deal with this terrifying use of nature’s power to destroy.
Perhaps one or two reflections here will add to all that is being written about this nefarious history now that the movie is on our screens.
First there is the incredible calculus referred to in the movie related to the possibility of total planetary destruction from the chain reaction inherent in unleashing atomic energy this way. Could it actually have been possible that those scientists, politicians and military personnel who laid down in the sands at Alamogordo, New Mexico and covered their heads as the bomb exploded nearby – did they actually think it could be the end of the world? Three years after this first test, some of us remember listening on the radio to the first test of an exponentially more dangerous hydrogen bomb and being clearly warned that those scientists had even greater fear that chain reaction there might never stop.
The movie features Oppenheimer’s reaction in horror to what he had birthed and his passing mention in the movie of a nuclear arms race beginning between the United States and Russia. One wishes that a final graphic on the screen would have catalogued how accurately Oppenheimer’s prophecy proved true. The United States and Russia pushed ahead with this competition and today close to 13,000 nuclear weapons exist today in nine nations!
What’s more, the United States is in the process of spending a trillion dollars in upgrading maintenance and refurbishment of its nuclear weapons arsenal.
As if this story is not horrible enough, the arms race continues in various forms. In 2019, a National Defense Authorization Act was signed establishing the U.S. Space Force. It is tasked with missions and operations in the “rapidly evolving space domain,” projected to cost $2 billion over the next five years and employ some 15,000 personnel. It is not a stretch to assume that nuclear weapons are part of this “advance in military preparedness.”
Now another possibility appears. On Sunday, July 30, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times entitled “Our Oppenheimer moment: The creation of AI weapons.” The guest essay, written by Alexander C. Karp, first lays out the inconceivable dangers of bringing Artificial Intelligence into the development and use of as yet unimagined weapons of mass destruction.
Karp, who is the CEO of Palantir Technologies, a company that creates data analysis software and works with the U.S. Department of Defense, then reverts to the circular and self-destructive logic of the Manhattan Project. Posing the proposition “Why America should lead development of AI military technology,” the essay offers the rationale: “closer alignment between [the state and technology] will be required if the United States and its allies are to maintain an advantage that will constrain our adversaries over the long term. We must not shy away from building sharp tools [sic] for fear that they may be turned against us.”
One of the principles set forth by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative is to preempt such escalations of violence with peaceful alternatives. One such alternative was articulated by Oppenheimer himself. He proposed the establishment of a worldwide governing body to halt the development of ever-more destructive armaments. Such efforts are already in place, among them the International Atomic Energy Agency.
May God help humanity to move in this direction following Yahweh’s original charge to His people : “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.