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A Genetic Bell: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Childhood understanding and adult responsibility

The Child: August 14, 1945

On August 14, 1945, in Washington D.C. (where my father was serving in the Navy), Edna Raine, Mother, and I were returning to our apartment from a morning walk.  Suddenly, sounds of “Victory” — church bells, sirens, automobile horns — surrounded us.  The “Japs,” we heard, had surrendered.

The rest of the way back to the apartment, we ran through a litany of things that had been denied to us by the war, but which we now could have: more toys, more sugar, maybe even a new car.  What I couldn’t know then, as a six-year-old American child, was that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were no cars, no sugar, no toys.  And there was no one left to surrender.  Not even the children.

The Adult: The Pentagon, August 5, 1987
A Genetic Bell

Almost fifty years old now, father of a girl turned twenty and a boy of seventeen, I’m in the middle of a tangle of bodies, not on a football field, but at the Pentagon.  The bodies and spirits belong to friends and members of Jonah House, a Baltimore community committed to disarmament.  Police are trying to throw us down escalators.  On this anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I’ve joined Jonah House in remembrance of those who were killed on August 5, 1945; those who died during the following days, weeks, years; those who indeed are still dying from radiation poisoning released by the bomb dropped on the people of Japan’s beautiful city forty-two years before this day of our actions.  We also want August 8, 1945, remembered.  Only three days after the obliteration of Hiroshima, U.S. citizens obeyed President Harry Truman’s order to drop a second atomic bomb, incinerating the people of Nagasaki before the Japanese had a chance to assimilate the horrendous significance of the first bomb and thus work out formalities of surrender.  Instantly vaporized in both cities, bodies of adults and children left imprints on walls past which they had been walking or in ground on which they had last lain — shadows of lost lives, true Shrouds of Turin.

Linking arms and sitting together, my Jonah House friends and I have been blocking the escalators, trying to keep men and women who work at the Pentagon from going about “business as usual.”  (Can I hear a genetic bell ringing?  Of course.  Without a doubt.  Grandmother, at The Shack, blocking the chain saw men!) 

Police, whose assigned task in the face of broken laws is to arrest law­breakers and then contain them safely until able to deliver them to court for punishment, have decided to take matters into their own hands, and, having turned off the escalators, they are now angrily trying to tear us loose from one another so they can throw or kick us down the steps.  In the middle of one pile, I feel my elbow digging into Phil Berrigan, a founder of Jonah House.  Phil is fifteen years older than I, and close to the bottom of the pile; I’m worried about him, but, for the time being, there’s not much I can do.

Eventually, the police calm down a bit, get us untangled, handcuff us, haul us out of the Pentagon, crowd us into a steaming-hot, almost airless paddy wagon, and good-humoredly take their time about carting us off to Arlington County Jail.  Luckily neither Phil nor anyone else has been badly hurt.  Our weekend in jail turns into one of sober reflection and rededication to what will continue to be a prime task of Jonah House: reminding people of horrors which, deep down, we are all tempted to try to forget.

A few weeks later, six co-defendants and I were in court trying to help people understand why we do what we do.  Attempting a variation of a time-honored — and sometimes even successful — defense, I asked the presiding judge, “In that I am a pro-se defendant, will you help me by answering a few questions regarding points of law?”

He agreed to try.

“I am legally protected, am I not, against being forced to incriminate myself?  Against being forced to put myself in legal jeopardy?”

“Yes.”

“It is true, is it not, that by way of numerous international treaties, such as the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of 1945, our elected officials obligated us not to build, use, or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction, weapons unable to discriminate between military and civilian popula­tions?”

“Yes . . . I believe so.”

“And at Nuremberg, it was clearly established, was it not, that each of us has a responsibility to act if our government violates international laws?”

“Yes.”

“If I am called before a Nuremberg-like tribunal of the future and asked why I didn’t resist my country’s criminal policy of building, deploying, and threatening to use nuclear weapons when I was so frequently on public record as having understood current United States violations of international law and basic human rights as well as its history — including the incineration of the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — I would be guilty, would I not?”

“Hmmmm,” the judge mused.

“It seems to me that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s prosecutor is asking my co-defendants and me to put ourselves in jeopardy regarding this possible future court.  We must continue acting in obedience to our own conscience, which, fortunately, today, is in accord with the highest laws established by human societies.  Our obligation is to resist nuclear madness, and so you should have no trouble finding us ‘Not Guilty.’ ”

The judge seemed to have listened carefully, and, indicating he didn’t quite know what to do, he took a break.  Apparently, he did not use the time to consult his books on international law because an hour later he came back into court, found all seven of us guilty as charged, and sentenced us to “time served,” the weekend we had spent in Arlington Jail.