Snap Judgment: Duck and cover redux

My childhood memories of nuclear-attack drills in school remain quite clear.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Though I can't quite remember the year we stopped doing nuclear-attack drills in school - around 1968, I would guess - my childhood memories of them remain quite clear. Our teachers would take us out of class and sit us with our backs to the walls out in the hallways, or sometimes down in the gym. We were instructed to bring our knees up to our chest, bury our face in them, and lay our arms around the front and back of our head. How this would protect us from the Soviet atomic bombs that would presumably be landing in the prime target of New York City some 30 kilometers distant was never quite made clear (nor was my suburban Long Island community then aware of a much closer potential target - the secret nuclear missile launch control facility in the nearby town of Lido Beach). Although not quite as ridiculous as the old "duck and cover" exercises from the 1950s that had kids diving under their school desks as air-raid sirens wailed, these precautions seemed equally futile against the invisible threat of radioactive fallout. Presumably that is why mine would be the last generation of American children to take part in such exercises, even though the Cold War would last about another 15 years. I left the United States for Israel just as the threat of nuclear bombardment began winding down for good in the mid-1980s. In leaving the world's greatest (and soon to be only) superpower for a small country surrounded on almost all sides by hostile nations, I certainly wasn't counting on living out the remainder of my life in a more secure environment. But perhaps shortsightedly, I didn't reckon on the possibility of one day finding myself, and my children, living once again under direct nuclear threat. At that time, Israel was (and still is) widely believed to have atomic weapons (or at least the ability to make them), while its enemies did not. That situation, unless the world takes serious action to halt or impede Iran's nuclear development, now appears set to change in the near future. Unfortunately though, that prospect bears poor comparison with the era of nuclear stand-off in which I was raised. Strange as it may sound today, some of us baby-boomers found a certain comfort in the apocalyptic sense of order imposed on the world by decades of super-power Cold War confrontation. The incisive American novelist Don DeLillo alludes to these feelings in his brilliant novel Underworld, in which a present-day character waxes almost nostalgic about that era: "Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was focused, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held the world together. You could measure things. You could measure hope and you could measure destruction. Not that I want to bring it all back. It's gone, good riddance. But the fact is." THIS SENSE of stability and focus that "held the world together" was indeed tangible in ways most of us didn't then fully understand. A reminder of this popped up in the news when Israeli-American Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Robert Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Aumann's prime achievement, the so-called "theory of repeated games" which states that cooperation between conflicting parties improves with repeated interaction within a long time frame, was reported to have greatly influenced American strategic thinking as regards the nuclear arms race, helping lead that country and the USSR to an eventual rational and peaceful conclusion. But that theory, it would seem to this layman, presupposes rational individuals on both sides of the game. Alas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his threats to "wipe Israel off the map," his assertions that the Holocaust didn't happen, and his suggestion that the Jews find themselves a new homeland in Alaska, hardly seems to fit this particular equation. As ruthless as the Soviet leadership might have been, its desire to build a communist utopia on earth enabled the US to reasonably expect that the prospect of "Mutually Assured Destruction" would keep Russian nukes in their silos. But the sincere belief of Ahmadinejad and his radical Islamist supporters that the true paradise awaits suicidal martyrs in the next life qualifies them more in the category of mad than MAD. Ccontaining the imminent Iranian nuclear problem requires a solution on the international level, involving decisive, and if need be forceful action from the US and Europe. So far that hasn't been forthcoming, perhaps because it is only Israel that will likely suffer in the immediate short term from the consequences of this situation. The rest of the world is well-advised to take scant comfort in that prospect. Recently, I was asked by a European journalist how Iran could be assured that Israel would in fact not be the first to use its own nuclear weapons against it. My answer was that I certainly hoped Israel would be the first to get its nukes in the air, if it got word that Teheran had began fueling nuclear-tipped Shihab 4 missiles pointed in this direction, because unlike the America in which I was raised, a "second-strike capability" seems improbable for a country that could indeed be wiped off the map with just a few atomic bombs. I pray to God it doesn't come to that. Having grown up in one age of nuclear anxiety, I've no desire that my children - or the children of our Palestinian neighbors, with whom we share enough hardships - should experience this particular bit of history first-hand. Just in case though, I'd suggest to Robert Aumann that he begin thinking of some new game theories applicable to this particular nuclear nightmare - while the rest of us mull over the prospect of getting our kids to once again do that ol' duck and cover. The writer is former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.