In a 2008 television interview, former Vice President Dick Cheney addressed complaints about the overreaching of the executive branch. In order to defend the Bush administration, he might have argued that reports of presidential overreaching were exaggerated. Instead he argued the opposite: the public, he suggested, has an insufficient appreciation of how truly vast that presidential power is. Accompanied around the clock by a military aid carrying the nuclear football,

[The president] could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress; he doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in. It’s unfortunate, but I think we’re perfectly appropriate to take the steps we have.1

Cheney makes the transition from the first three sentences to the fourth as though his conclusion followed effortlessly from his premises: the president’s license to launch nuclear weapons (accurately described by Cheney, and true of every president living in the nuclear age from Eisenhower to Obama) makes his otherwise illegal executive actions —however “unfortunate”—“perfectly appropriate.”

What Vice President Cheney seems to be saying is this: if you keep in mind the vast level of injury the president is permitted to inflict on the world, it will help you keep in perspective the lesser injuries he has actually inflicted: the 350 people allegedly tortured, the 83 times Abu Zubaydah was water boarded, the 183 times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water boarded,2 the 3x6x7-foot cell (rat-infested and latrine-free) in which the wholly innocent Canadian citizen Maher Arar was kept for a year during which time he was periodically beaten with a two inch–thick cable and threatened with being suspended upside down from a tire and subjected to electric shock.3 Each time you think that the perpetrators of such acts should be prosecuted, replace that picture of prosecution with a picture of what is always in the president’s field of vision: the nuclear football.

Of course, neither picture should displace the other. Prosecuting the architects of U.S. torture is critical to restoring the rule of law, as I and countless others have argued and continue to argue. But we should also, as Dick Cheney counsels, think about the 40-pound titanium briefcase that accompanies the president (as well as, in one format or another, the executive officers of other countries) and enables him to launch a nuclear strike. Nuclear weapons need to be gotten rid of first and foremost for their own sake and also for the “lesser” brutalities they license.

Our nuclear weapons are, at every minute of the day and night, ready for use. Just as the nuclear briefcase is within the president’s reach, so all other steps between the order to launch and the launch itself are relentlessly in place. In his recent biography Without Hesitation, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton describes the period of his career when, as Deputy Director of Operations at the National Military Command Center under Bill Clinton, he was “in charge of our nuclear watch” at the Pentagon “with secure 24/7 links to the President . . . and the key to initiate a nuclear launch at my fingertips.” He recounts the frequent exercises—called “Night Blue”—for presidential launch: “Our guiding philosophy was—and still is—practice, then practice again.”4

Some students in the Air Force’s Nuclear Ethics course called its theological justifications for nuclear strikes the ‘Jesus loves nukes’ part.

As the president is kept ready and the Pentagon is kept ready, so the submarines are kept ready. Each of our fourteen Ohio-class submarines carries 24 nuclear missiles, bright orange vertical shafts vaulting upward through all four stories of the submarine. In some of the submarines, such as the USS Tennessee, the orange paint color is increasingly darkened to red across the 24 missiles to give the illusion of greater depth to the crew who will reside in these confined quarters under the ocean for their three-month long mission.5 At the moment the submarine leaves its East Coast port of Kings Bay, Georgia or its West Coast port of Bangor, Washington, each missile (each of which in turn carries up to seventeen warheads) already has a dossier of targets programmed into it. Should the commander of a nuclear submarine receive a presidential launch order, that order will specify—by number—which of his 24 missiles he should launch (the launch order may require the submarine crew to alter the pre-programmed target coordinates). According to New York Times reporter Douglas Waller—who describes his three months on the nuclear-armed submarine USS Nebraska in his book Big Red—the U.S. Strategic Command, located at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, demands “that the subs cover all the target packages twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No excuses.”6 His book is a nonstop description of emergency exercises: launching a missile, dealing with a dissident crew member, dealing with a commander suffering an “attack of pacifism,” stopping a fire, stopping a water leak, doing two or three of these exercises simultaneously. No one who expresses hesitation about firing nuclear weapons can be a crew member; still, the daily drills develop procedures to deal with hesitation, should it suddenly arise.7

At least some portion of the population also practices mental readiness for a nuclear strike. The country’s solitary final assembly plant for nuclear weapons is located in Amarillo, Texas. Twenty-five years ago the journalist A. G. Mojtabai set out to understand how the people of this city bear the psychic burden of this work. As she reported in Blessèd Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas, many members of the population believe in the Rapture—the end of the world and the gathering of true believers into the arms of Christ. For many of these believers, nuclear weapons, far from being something to repudiate, are vehicles to this blissful end-time event.

The 1995–2007 Left Behind series—which has more than 65 million readers—opens with the Rapture: millions of the earth’s most godly believers disappear in an instant. This initial event is neither assisted nor accompanied by nuclear attacks.8 But a seven-year war-torn “tribulation” period then follows during which the people of earth (including our major protagonists) have the chance to become true believers in preparation for the end of the world. Vying with Christ for people’s hearts is the Antichrist, a charismatic man named Nicholae Carpathia who overnight has become both the president of Romania and the internationally revered secretary general of the United Nations. How do our protagonists immediately recognize that he is the Antichrist? What is the telltale sign, the sure giveaway? He demands nuclear disarmament: when the United Nations begs him to become its new leader, he stipulates that he will only do so if the nuclear countries destroy nine-tenths of their nuclear weapons and put the other tenth under protection of the United Nations.9

Carpathia will turn out to have murderous inclinations, but the key point is that no one on Christ’s side, or the Rapture’s side, or God’s side is anywhere in these books championing a benign form of nuclear disarmament. Indeed when one of our protagonists, the pastor Bruce Barnes, himself becomes an influential leader, he assures his congregation that he never advocates disarmament or peace and is fully accepting of the wars to come: that is how the congregants can be certain that he is not an Antichrist.10


Not all readers take the ideas of Left Behind literally. But many do. The authors certainly press for literal belief in the Rapture and, seven years later, the final Glorious Appearing, even providing an appendix elaborating the biblical bases of the novel’s events (the biblical citations are also included, recited, and analyzed in the interior pages of the novels). Jerry Falwell stated, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, [Left Behind is] probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”11 But whether or not readers believe in the literal claims of the book, they are surely being counseled to regard nuclear disarmament as morally sinister and nuclear weapons as morally good, even godly.12

As the study of Amarillo makes clear, the Left Behind series does not originate, but taps into, a set of associations between nuclear weapons and evangelical belief that pre-dates and post-dates the books. Those beliefs are held not only by some of the people who assemble nuclear weapons, but by some of the people who are positioned to launch them. Until late July 2011, the Air Force had a mandatory course on Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare for its missile officers, a course whose materials were recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose president, Mikey Weinstein is an Air Force Academy graduate and a former Air Force Judge Advocate General. The course—as Weinstein summarizes it—“mandatorily teaches its nuclear missile launch officers that fundamentalist Christian theology is inextricably intertwined with the ‘correct’ decision to launch nukes.”13 According to Truthout, presentations include citations from the Old and New Testaments, including, from the Book of Revelation, the claim that “Jesus Christ is a mighty warrior.” Some of the graduates refer to one section of the course as the “Jesus loves nukes” part. The Air Force, in response to adverse publicity, has temporarily suspended and promised to review the course.

Once eight countries have nuclear weapons, people everywhere on earth potentially ‘have’ them.

The dangers inherent in the redundancy, readiness, and hair-trigger alert of our nuclear stance are further amplified by the growing mastery of hacking. Once eight countries have nuclear weapons, people everywhere on earth potentially “have” them. A report by Jason Fritz commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament reviews the ways hackers could enter the command-and-control system of one of the eight nuclear countries in order to launch a missile directly, issue a false presidential command that would in turn lead to the launching of a missile (here Fritz draws on a U.S. Navy acknowledgment of “back door” access to their Very Low Frequency command systems), or produce a false missile image on a country’s radar and satellite screens, causing that country to launch an actual missile in response.

Confronted with a counterfeit image of an incoming missile, U.S. warning crews would have three minutes to assess whether the apparent attack was valid or false; if it were judged valid, the U.S. Strategic Command would then have 30 seconds to lay out for the president the “retaliatory options”; the president would have several minutes to decide how to respond. Fritz draws on the writings of Bruce Blair, a former launch officer working with the Minuteman nuclear missile, and uses the example of a cyber terrorist attempting to foment nuclear war between the United States and Russia:

Cyber terrorists would not need deception that could stand up over time: they would only need to be believable for the first 15 minutes or so. The amount of firepower that could be unleashed in these 15 minutes, combined with the equally swift Russian response would be equivalent to approximately 100,000 Hiroshima bombs.14

We have not been informed of any attempts to hack nuclear weapons systems, but in 1998 hackers successfully inserted an image of a mushroom cloud onto the Web site of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in India;15 in 2000 a thirteen-year-old boy in Connecticut hacked into the U.S. Air Force plane tracking system;16 in 2009 Iraqi rebels hacked into the video system of unmanned U.S. aircraft.17 In his book Cyber War, Richard Clarke describes how phantom images can be used to trick sensors, as when Israel in 2007 placed false images of benign night sky on Syria’s sophisticated Russian-made air-surveillance screens so that a blanketing formation of F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons could fly into that country without being detected and bomb what was believed to be the construction site for a nuclear facility.18 Hacking is usually not noticed until it is successful. Fritz gives the example of the 2001 hacker who, on his 45th attempt, successfully released “up to 1 million litres of sewage into the river and coastal waters of Queensland, Australia”; his earlier 44 attempts went undetected.19

Nuclear weapons are the object of intense attention: they are in the president’s field of vision, in the field of vision of Ohio-class submarine crews, in the minds of popular-novel readers and weapons assemblers, on the screens of the nuclear control centers at the Pentagon and at Offutt Air Force Base (where President Bush stopped on 9/11, after first stopping at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, another important location on the nuclear registry), and almost certainly in the aspiration of hackers, some of whom, like the Rapture artists, may believe that the end of the world is acceptable.

But it is not the case that inattention—what most of the rest of us practice—is a better alternative. Inattention is what allowed President Clinton to lose the card containing the presidential launch codes for several months.20 Inattention is what allowed six nuclear bombs to sit unattended on an open airfield at Minot Air Force Base and then at Barksdale for a total of 36 hours in late August 2007. Inattention is what led to the collision of two nuclear-armed submarines—the British HMS Vanguard and the French Le Triomphant—in the Atlantic in February 2009.21 Our inattention is potentially as lethal as these three accidents, for our indifference and our willed ignorance everyday assist the standing arrangements that entail colossal danger to earth.

Our work on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 should include mourning the dead and restoring the rule of law through prosecution, but now—while the century is still young—we need to dedicate ourselves to ridding the world of nuclear weapons and the extreme injuries they are designed to bring about—injuries from which (as President Obama has observed22) we would not be able to recover.