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An excerpt….Nagasaki principle….James Carroll August 7, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in James Carroll.

Across the decades, the United States has had a case of what the historian Marc Trachtenberg calls “nuclear amnesia,” a profound forgetfulness about the context and consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The context included the prior destruction of dozens of Japanese cities, most notably Tokyo, that relativized the damage done at the two atomic sites. The consequences included the mutation in human consciousness that now foresaw the end not merely of individual life, but of civilization itself. Shame and dread defined the deepest part of the American psyche, even if no explicit confrontation with these feelings was ever undertaken.

Thus, what I am calling the Nagasaki principle consists in momentum, which obfuscates responsibility before the fact, and denial, which prevents a necessary moral reckoning afterward.

This may seem like airy theorizing, but the psychologically unfinished business of the Nuclear Age, dating to the day after Hiroshima, defined the American response to the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. The nation had lived for two generations with the subliminal but powerfully felt dread of a coming nuclear war.

Unconsciously ashamed of our own action in using the bomb, we were waiting for pay-back, and on that beautiful morning it seemed to come. The smoke rising up from the twin towers hit us like a mushroom cloud, and we instantly dubbed the ruined site as Ground Zero, when, as historian John Dower observes, the only true Ground Zeros are the two in Japan.

Our unconscious shame was superseded by an overt sense of victimhood. We launched a war whose momentum has carried the world into the unwilled and unforeseen catastrophe that unfolds today. Our denial of nuclear responsibility, meanwhile, embodied in our permanent nuclear arsenal, licenses other nations that aim to match us — notably Iran. Momentum and denial combined to destroy Nagasaki, which was, alas, not the end, but the beginning.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company



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