New Internationalist

Doomsday Clock: five minutes to midnight

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As the Doomsday Clock moves to five minutes to midnight, Obama’s rhetoric is beginning to seem rather hollow, says Felicity Arbuthnot.

Photo by Bilal Lashari under a CC Licence.
Photo by Bilal Lashari under a CC Licence.

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita … “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer, Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima

Chilling ironies surely do not come much greater than this. The Nobel Peace Prize winning President of the United States, in an election year, has contributed to global instability and the possibility of nuclear conflict to such an extent that the ‘Doomsday Clock’ has this week been moved to five minutes to midnight.

The forward-creeping hands of the symbolic clock, maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago, indicate we are closer to global catastrophe than we have been anytime in the last 26 years, with the exception of 2007, when the hands were similarly set under the gung-ho presidency of George W. Bush.

What a world away from Obama’s June 2009 speech at Egypt’s Al Azhar University, where he declared he was in Cairo ‘to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims round the world (and to) share … tolerance and dignity.’

He asserted: ‘There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another and to seek common ground … the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful then the forces that drive us apart.’

Tell that to the bereaved, maimed, homeless Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans, the US-menaced people of Syria, over one third of whom are fourteen or under. Tell it to the annihilation-threatened Iranian population, nearly a quarter whom are also children. This is the same Iran which, so demonized, generously hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world (which 1999 UNHCR figures cite is at a cost of ten million dollars a day).

Tell it to the droned and blown (away) of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia.

A ‘sustained effort to listen’ has been largely denied the untried, incarcerated, abused, and tortured in Bagram and Guantanamo’s ‘gulags of our times,’ as much during the Obama presidency as the years before.

It is only three minutes behind the two minutes to midnight – the most apocalyptic ever – of 1953, when both the US and Soviet Union tested thermo-nuclear devices within nine months of each other

But back to the ticking atomic clock. Alarmingly, the furthest from ‘midnight’ it has ever been is seventeen minutes, on 31 July, 1991, when the US and then Soviet Union, under George Bush Snr. and Mikhail Gorbachev, signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This was a heartening seven minute leap from the ten to midnight of 1990, even in spite of the 32-nation war on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait. The Berlin Wall had, however, fallen and the Cold War seemed to be ending.

In 1963 and 1972, both years of seemingly groundbreaking arms limitation treaties between the US and Soviet Union, the clock remained at ten minutes to midnight.

Even when India tested a nuclear device, and the US and Soviet Union both modernized their destructive potential in 1974, the clock stood four minutes further away from annihilation than in Obama’s age – at nine minutes to midnight.

19,000 nuclear weapons

As the United States aircraft carriers, Carl Vinson and John C. Stennis, bristling with nuclear weapons and twitchy testosterone-fuelled troops, steam Iran-wards to either bomb nuclear installations – with the danger of a potential nuclear winter – or bomb to keep the Straits of Hormuz open for one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies, the clock is just two minutes back from when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1947, officially starting the nuclear arms race.

It is only three minutes behind the two minutes to midnight – the most apocalyptic ever – of 1953, when both the US and Soviet Union tested thermo-nuclear devices within nine months of each other.

There are about 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world, according to the Science and Security Board. ‘That’s enough to blow up the Earth many times over. We are really in a pickle,’ says Kennette Benedict, Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, of their latest clock change.

‘Recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task,’ said President Obama, in Cairo, when some believed his ‘Yes we can’ meant peace and a new dawn for the planet and humanity.

‘No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other,’ he went on. ‘It’s easier to start wars than to end them. … It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

‘This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new, that isn’t black or white or brown, that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today,’ he concluded.

Indeed. Beware of Presidents bearing Nobel Peace Prize tags.

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  1. #1 Jamie 17 Jan 12

    'the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1947, officially starting the nuclear arms race.'
    Think maybe the nuclear arms race started with the atomic bomb test over Hiroshima.

  2. #2 Robin Tudge 17 Jan 12

    What a strange piece.
    Drones and Guantanamo are nasty tools indeed, but as the piece concedes, not really related to the Atomic Clock.
    Are you sure the biggest threat to the Syrians doesn't come from their own president and his oppressive regime, or the current post-war plight of the Libyans is as much to do with their own efforts to topple the dictator Gaddafi? Don't the Iranian people have a claim to having to put up with a pretty despotic lot running the place in Tehran? (I also think UN figures from 1999 is a bit of a stretch to make a case for Iran's bottomless hospitality to refugees).
    Wasn't the Atomic Clock put closer to midnight in 2007, p-o-s-s-i-b-l-y due to neo-con bellicosity, but in reality was in no small part because North Korea let one off?
    Who in fact is giving the Afghans the worst time of it, the US or ... Afghans? Do the regimes in Pakistan and Yemen blame Washington for the atrocious way they run their own states?
    Didn't the Atomic Clock in fact go back to 6 minutes to midnight in 2010 because of 'Worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit effect of climate change', in which Obama had a not insignificant role?
    'Let's use this tacky and out-dated benchmark of global peril to launch a groundless attack on the US.'

  3. #3 Robert Willoughby 17 Jan 12

    ’...indicate we are closer to global catastrophe than we have been anytime in the last 26 years, with the exception of 2007, when the hands were similarly set under the gung-ho presidency of George W. Bush.’

    Maybe don't contradict yourself in the same sentence, particularly if it exposes how far you're having to reach to make a point - 'closer to catastrophe than anytime in the last 26 years ... except five years ago', as you point out.

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