(Continued from “The Bomb in the Mind.”)
The Ground Zero of the World Trade Center attack shares a designation with the Ground Zero of the Hiroshima bomb — a designation which links the two events in the American mind. For all the talk about weapons of mass destruction in the years after September 11, 2001, however, the weapons used in New York were common commercial passenger jetliners, a transportation technology not yet a century old itself.
By 2001 America was the sole global nuclear superpower, having surpassed the nuclear capabilities of any other claimants to the title decades before. The last time that abolition, rather than non-proliferation, of nuclear weapons, which continue to possess a far more devastating destructive power than even chemical or biological WMDs, was poised to become a central tenet of American military policy was during talks between US President Ronald Reagan, a long-time nuclear abolitionist, and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. In final chapter of The Seventh Decade, Jonathan Schell carefully describes what appeared to be the very sincere attempts of Reagan and Gorbachev to entirely dismantle their nuclear arsenals over a ten year period, only to founder on Reagan’s misguided advocacy of the Star Wars SDI project, to which Gorbachev could not agree, even after Reagan proposed to share the completed technology with the Soviet Union.
Only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the quick end of the Cold War in 1989 was America able to claim sole nuclear dominance, especially after it was revealed that the nuclear war capabilities of the Soviet Union had been deteriorating for years and the cost of the arms race had devastated the Soviet economy. America’s nuclear policy, with the loss of the United States’ most ideologically and militarily powerful enemy, was suddenly without direction; from preparation for nuclear war, the attention turned to nuclear non-proliferation. At no time, though, was the United States willing to cede any kind of military or nuclear prominence. It was now in a decision to dictate to the world who could or could not have the bomb. “Nuclear disarmament — once the province of diplomacy and international cooperation — was for the first time to be pursued by military force, including the overthrow of regimes, in a projected series of what can be called disarmament wars,” Schell writes (Schell 102). What’s more, America’s manifest destiny could now be extended around the world, after having overrun the North American continent, making the world safe for the American nation-state alone, if not democracy and capitalism themselves.
But the enemies of the United States, as the World Trade Center attack demonstrated, were not other nation-states, but unpredictable groups of ideologically-driven terrorists supported by much smaller and less militarily powerful rogue states. Bush in the aftermath of September 11 was driven to declare a “war on terror” itself rather than any particular contender to the throne of nuclear dominance. But wars against vague abstractions like terror are unwinnable.
To be a US citizen in the years after September 11 was to be a combatant in this unwinnable war that the government declared in our name. America’s imperial dreams of global domination and international manifest destiny were accompanied by fearful nightmares of arbitrary attack from nearly any quarter, not merely the Eastern Bloc; nuclear devastation could come not at the hands of a nation-state but from small cadres of individuals acting in the name of their own god or destiny, as the WTC attackers proved; Schell’s book describes the means by which these cadres could quite easily acquire or develop a nuclear weapon of their own.
This new conception of manifest destiny and post-9/11 survivors’ guilt is a subtext to Neil LaBute’s recent The Break of Noon. Before this, though, there were a variety of responses by American dramatists to the nuclear dilemmas of the post-war world in the closing years of the Cold War, among them Arthur Kopit’s 1984 End of the World with Symposium to Follow and Lee Blessing’s 1988 A Walk in the Woods, both of which enjoyed Broadway runs following premieres at resident theatres. I will look at these soon.