When the clock strikes midnight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

At 8.15am, on August 6 in Hiroshima, the sound of a bell plaintively blown by the wind tinkles through the screeching of cicadas as the silence begins for the victims of the world's first atomic bomb.

On that day, in 1945, the infamous mushroom cloud - and the vaporising heat, wind and fury of the bomb - swept 100,000 people from the face of the Earth, while another 40,000 died in lingering agony from burns or radiation poisoning. Today, others still live with painful physical and mental scars of the explosion.

Yet, 62 years on, nuclear weapons are still a dangerous fact of life. Scientists in January advanced the hands on the Doomsday Clock by two minutes to stand at five minutes to midnight. Midnight on the clock is the end of the world.

North Korea has reluctantly agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities, but Iran rejoices in playing the devilish hooligan and pushing its nuclear programme, which is 'peaceful', according to its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But who can trust a leader in Tehran with a messianic streak?

Of equal concern, Pakistan is fragile and infected with Islamic dissidents. There is a real worry that Islamic radicals dedicated to holy war may, through their army contacts, get access to nuclear technology, even if they cannot - yet - get their hands on the government.

Yuichi Seirai, a writer whose father was a victim of the atomic bomb, wrote: 'When mankind dropped the atomic bomb, I think people abandoned God and their humanity.'

He is wrong only in being several centuries late. History is replete with armies slaughtering bystanders, women and children with abandon. This mass murder was often done in the name of the God that the murderers professed to believe in, or under God's claimed guidance.

There is a saving grace, at least in the Bible story of the monotheistic God of Adam and Abraham - who is the same God that Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in.

That God softens under the influence of his creation; frail, stupid, flawed, greedy, gullible and wilful mankind.

The early Old Testament portrays a stern and unforgiving God, a bloodthirsty warrior and lawless lawgiver determined to punish any transgressions of his code.

But, as the Old Testament advances, God mellows under the influence of love for his wayward people. The culmination of the God who embodies love is Christ, who turns the other cheek and suffers an ignominious death on a cross.

But countless nominally Christian governments have behaved differently, sometimes with a savagery out of the Old Testament.

Western leaders today say that they have changed and that, in a globalising world, they want to bring modern benefits to everyone. That is the intention behind the crusade of US President George W. Bush for democracy, behind the push for a settlement in Darfur and greater aid to Africa.

But even if you credit the good intentions, they are spoiled by imperfect knowledge, strong commercial pressures, poor understanding and continuing colonial beliefs both in the west and among rulers of developing countries.

The world is rapidly on its way to being global, but the politicians, bureaucrats and media are still narrowly and narrow-mindedly tribal.

Media companies look for the grand dramas; killings in Darfur, bombs in Baghdad, foot and mouth disease in Britain, even the sad story of a 'holy' bull with tuberculosis destroyed despite the opposition of its British Hindu devotees.

They thus dramatise trivia while ignoring momentous trends of hunger, homelessness, lack of education, and oppression of women in large parts of the world. One child dies of hunger every six seconds, but goes unnoticed.

But if the west has its limitations, the Muslim world seems determined to promote a clash of civilisations. To take a topical example, look to the Taleban, which kidnapped 23 South Korean Christians. The Koreans, however misguided, went to Afghanistan to help. As guests, according to Afghan tribal rules, they should have been treated with generosity.

By Islamic codes, the women should have been protected. Instead, two men have been shot dead and their bodies dumped, and the rest are being held prisoner; without care or medicine, some have fallen ill.

Where is the cry of outrage from other Muslim nations at this infringement of basic Islamic codes?

These Taleban would be on the front line to receive any seepage of nuclear-weapons technology, with their al-Qaeda allies, from Pakistan. Who can doubt that they would use them?

It has been said that nuclear weapons did less damage than, say, the firebombings of Tokyo and Yokohama in killing Japanese during the war. But nuclear weapons are the extreme form of criminal violence, because of their force and random power to annihilate anyone within range. With new technology and greater portability, this is an awesome threat.

That is why it is depressing in Hiroshima to hear a debate about whether Japan, the first victim, should 'go nuclear'. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is officially dedicated to the quest of abolishing all nuclear weapons. But his determination to get rid of the peace constitution has fanned the fires of the nuclear debate.

At five minutes to midnight on the nuclear clock, Japan should know better. It should use its unique status as the victim of atomic weapons to engage China and North Korea - even Iran. Tokyo pretends to worry about what Pyongyang might do, but North Korea would launch missiles against Japan only at the certainty of its own extinction.

On the other hand, Mr Abe, Japan and the rest of the world would do well to remember 'father of the atomic bomb' Robert Oppenheimer's quote from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, about the weapon: 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator