Countdown to zero

An ‘inconvenient’ new film takes a stark – but flawed – look at how miscalculation and madness could lead us into nuclear disaster.

Ahamadinejad 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ahamadinejad 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Countdown to Zero, a new and terrifying film about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, uses a quote from former US president John F.
Kennedy as the pivot around which it builds the case for global nuclear disarmament. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness,” Kennedy told the UN in 1961.
“The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
Accident, miscalculation and madness, the film makes clear, are looming specters in life generally, but much more so when it comes to nuclear weapons. The film rapidly disabuses any reliance on technology, contending that nothing can protect the general populace either from the unintentional release of weapons or the deliberate theft of the highly enriched uranium necessary to make them.
Not only is it easy to steal highly enriched uranium, the film contends, but generally, until the material is seized by customs officials, no one even knows if it’s missing. Its thieves aren’t necessarily politically or religiously motivated – some of them, in fact, could charitably be called morons. “I like big luxurious cars,” one apprehended nuclear thief says in Georgia. When asked if he would mind if the material he steals were to go to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, he responds that the United States “created Bin Laden,” and therefore deserves whatever it gets by way of nuclear war.
Director Lucy Walker makes much of such stomach-dropping moments.
In interviews with experts and analysts, she seeks to reveal just how slender the threads holding Damocles’ sword are. “Potatoes were guarded better,” one expert says of the unattended shed (with padlock) in the former Soviet Union which provided one enterprising thief with ample amounts of highly enriched uranium.
Smuggling the material into the US, the film helpfully points out, would be pretty easy, as more than 100,000 shipping containers enter the US every day, a number which cannot possibly be completely checked. At another point in the film, another expert advises that the easiest way to smuggle radioactive material into the US is to put it in a bag of kitty litter, which sets off radiation detectors anyway (as do ceramics, old-style television sets and other innocuous items).
A bomb could then easily be built in a US target city itself.
JEFFREY LEWIS, a nuclear analyst, says in describing the ease with which one could construct a nuclear weapon, “It’s definitely not rocket science – rocket science is hard.”
The film then turns toward its agenda of advocating global nuclear disarmament. It finds no solace in the idea of deterrence – that old-fashioned concept that mutually assured destruction will keep everyone locked in a perpetual game of chicken.
In an era where nation-states rapidly disintegrate, and bad nongovernmental entities like Hizbullah and al-Qaida want to murder, the film argues that there are new factors at play that render deterrence irrelevant.
We can no longer trust one another – but somehow will be able to summon that same extinct trust in making sure everyone gets rid of their weaponry.
Former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson states in the film, “Every country can use self-defense as a rationale for developing nuclear weapons. But if every country does so, it is a much more dangerous world.”
True, but one could contend that they’re perhaps more dangerous in the hands of some countries than others.
At the end of the film, viewers are offered the option of what I’ll call “textivism”: “Text ZERO to
77177 to receive updates on how you can help Demand Zero.” But typing something in with one’s thumbs on a mobile communications device seems comparatively futile, when thumbs in some classified location could easily press other buttons that would commence Armageddon.
Documentaries of this ilk – An Inconvenient Truth or any one of Michael Moore’s films, for example – intend to agitate their viewers, rousing them from complicit complacency into action. But the inadequacy of textivism highlights the film’s most fundamental flaw, and that is this: The people who are taking the most determined stance against nuclear weapons are the people of Israel, who live their lives on the front lines of the specter of nuclear conflagration.
Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear presence in a volatile region, as we well know, is something akin to a carefully placed thumb in a dike – a small but determined bulwark against an unstoppable flood of destruction.
For even the existence of the floodwaters to go unmentioned, therefore, renders the film’s entire thesis as somewhat pie-in-the-sky. Yes, in all likelihood, it would be a better world if there were no weapons which could murder millions. The film actively and repeatedly vilifies Robert Oppenheimer, architect of the atom bomb. But surely it’s important to note that the arms race started in no small part to stop the Nazis and Hitler – certainly a worthy cause, though this concept is not even referenced by the film.
There’s more than one modern aspirant to Hitler’s death toll. To not mention that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made clear his intent to destroy Israel – well, that’s not just an elephant in the room. That’s more of an elephant in a phone booth.