Guns And Nukes

Alan Zendell, March 12, 2018

I learned important lessons about guns and nuclear weapons when I was growing up.

Living across the street from a Brooklyn firehouse as a child, I was frequently awakened in the middle of the night by piercing sirens (with no air conditioning the windows were usually open) convinced that we were about to be incinerated. I rode my bike to Coney Island when I was eleven and was greeted by a billboard left over from World War 2 — “In the event of an air raid, don’t panic. This is not a target area.” The next time I was there with the advent of the Soviet Union’s H-bomb tests, the billboard had been removed.

Remember those duck-and-cover drills in school? They’d been dispensed with by the time my kids were in school because they’d become moot. The reality that we could have been nuked at any moment during the Cold War caused that whole generation of young people to question whether they would live to become adults. And now my grandkids live with the new reality of Iran and North Korea.

No problem facing our country and the world is more serious than the nuclear threat of North Korea, even though it’s Japan and South Korea that are squarely in the crosshairs. Every president from Eisenhower to Obama has been unable to deal successfully with NK’s dynasty of rogue leaders. If that taught us anything, it was that the problem cannot be solved with cavalier bravado.

I, like everyone else, had a moment of elation when I heard that Kim Jong Un had invited President Trump to Pyongyang to negotiate, and that Trump had immediately accepted. The moment lasted until I remembered all the promises broken by Kim’s father and grandfather and the way the latest of the Kim dictators has used the journalistic and social media like his own personal propaganda machines. The latest Kim incarnation is bold and wily, not someone who can be bluffed or intimidated at the negotiating table.

To make matters worse, on our side of the table we’ll have the great deal maker who has failed miserably at everything he couldn’t do by Executive Order except supporting the Republican tax cut tsunami. Our president eschews advice (Secretary of State Tillerson, who should be at the forefront has been silent) and believes he’s capable of Herculean feats no one else would even attempt; he shoots from the hip, prefers insults and hyperbole to substance, and has no respect for truth or facts, except those he invents; and finally, he continually says one thing one day and contradicts himself the next, and believes that’s an effective negotiating tactic because it makes him seem unpredictable.

On one hand the world’s leaders mock him, even those, like Putin who heap false praise on him. On the other they must deal and pay homage to the Commander in Chief of the world’s most deadly military force. But Kim Jong Un is in his own category, and there is no reason to believe that Trump can hold his own with him one-on-one much less outmaneuver him. So my short-lived elation turned to concern because if Trump fails to get an agreement, we’re all in greater jeopardy than we are now.

I learned enough about guns when I was fourteen to make a lasting impression. I was part of a group of teenagers being taught how to use a .22 caliber rifle responsibly. Everyone followed the rules perfectly and the targets were sensibly located on a board fence with nothing behind them except open forest. Yet, when the signal was given to fire, we nearly killed a two-year-old child who had crawled behind the fence unobserved.

The lesson is that no matter how many precautions we take, guns can kill, and rules only work when error-prone humans don’t screw up or deliberately evade them. When our president met with mourning, traumatized high school students and promised that he would lead the fight to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and keep military-style assault weapons out of the hands of everyone except the military, we all thought, here’s his chance to be the president we hoped he would be.

But just as he has done with immigration and DACA, his words turned out to be empty. He mocked Republican Congresspeople for being terrified of the NRA, but when push came to shove, and the NRA threatened to turn his base against him, our fearless leader caved. Once again, when Donald Trump found himself in a situation where he couldn’t use his money and his lawyers to bully the opposition, he was just another stuffed shirt.

I have a feeling, however, that there’s one group of Americans who we can count on not to cave in to pressure. All those students who will be old enough to vote for the first time next November will turn out in droves, and the politicians who betrayed their trust will pay for their lack of moral courage.

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