Elaine Scarry has been writing about the unique dangers and challenges of nuclear weapons in Boston Review for almost two decades. In the following interview with Rachel Ablow, which took place in 2018 and originally appeared in a longer form in the journal Representations, Scarry highlights a number of her more recent thoughts on the issue—thoughts that are especially relevant given rising tensions with both Iran and North Korea.

North Korea, Scarry points out, has fewer than 60 nuclear weapons. The United States, by contrast, has 6,500. The U.S. population is “sleeping” on the issue for a variety of reasons, ranging from the philosophical and psychological to the logistical. The architecture of nuclear weapons renders the citizenry powerless. It is time to wake up, Scarry argues, and she has some provocative proposals—including embracing the Second Amendment—for reclaiming democratic power.


Rachel Ablow: In your book Thermonuclear Monarchy (2016), you demonstrate the incompatibility of democracy and nuclear arms at least in part on the grounds that, by the nature of their deployment, nuclear arms make it impossible for the populace to consent to their use. More recently, you’ve made a different but related claim about the relative silence of the population regarding nuclear arms in the post–Cold War era. You are concerned, in particular, with the difficulties of imagining the consequences of nuclear war. I wonder if you could expand on this second point: why it is so hard to think about nuclear war?


‘It’s almost inconceivable that nuclear war isn’t going to happen.’

Elaine Scarry: The two points are deeply related. The architecture of nuclear arms requires that the population and Congress be eliminated from the decision about going to war. The nature of the technology requires a tiny number of people to do the launch, and the result is that people eventually, over seven decades, have internalized the fact that they’re worthless when it comes to the need to defend the country and to carry out acts of mutual aid toward one another. We now simply abandon the right of self-defense and the right of mutual aid and give unlimited injuring power to the executive branch of government.


RA: How much responsibility, how much blame, does one give to the population for remaining silent?


ES: That has always been a question. Gandhi said, ‘‘You can wake a man who’s asleep, but you can’t wake a man who’s pretending to be asleep.’’ His statement marks a fork in the road. If the population has been anesthetized and is genuinely asleep, then they are morally innocent (even if infantilized and terribly reduced as moral agents). If instead the population is pretending to be asleep, we are morally culpable: the population is complicit with the genocide that’s standing in the wings waiting to happen. Recently, I feel the force of Martin Luther King’s statement, ‘‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’’ I’m almost at the point of believing that there is a wanton refusal to see the imminent peril, a refusal to understand not just that we have a responsibility to reverse it, to dismantle it, but that we have the ability to do so, and that if we don’t, it is going to happen. I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year, or whether it’s going to happen this century, but it’s almost inconceivable that nuclear war isn’t going to happen.


RA: Why is it that people have such a hard time understanding this? If you allow that people might honestly and ardently be trying to understand, what is it that is getting in the way?


ES: Four or five answers come to mind. First, people often lack key pieces of information. If you ask someone in this country which nations have nuclear weapons, they are likely to say Iraq (which has none), Iran (which has none), or North Korea (which has fewer than 60; leading experts say fewer than 20). The United States has 6,500. The United States and Russia together own 93 percent of the world arsenal: the other 7 percent is owned by the other seven nuclear states—in order of numerical possession, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. An equally profound misconception held by U.S. citizens is the belief that our nuclear architecture is for “defense” and “retaliation.” In fact, we have had a “presidential first-use” policy for the whole nuclear age. The profound obscenity of that arrangement, which has only begun to be glimpsed with the current president, has been an equally grave moral wrong from day one.

‘North Korea has fewer than 60 nuclear weapons. The United States has 6,500.’ 

Second, even when U.S. citizens and residents have this information, the outcome is derealized by its being future—that is, the unreality something has by having not yet happened is conflated with the unreality something might have by being merely imaginary. People, it’s true, are uninformed. But once they become informed, even then the flash of insight fades from their eyes after about ten minutes because they think “future” means “unreal.”

Click here for a larger version of this image.


But if it takes 10,000 steps to put a nuclear architecture into place, 9,999 steps have already been completed. Unlike in China and India, the weapons in the United States are already “mated” to the delivery systems; they are on alert; specific weapons have been assigned to specific cities in the countries of present enemies and, yes, even potential enemies. One step remains: the order to launch. So, 9,999 steps are present and accounted for; one remains undone. And while the 9,999 steps took vast amounts of time and resources, the last one is designed to be carried out in minutes. The word “future” does not apply to the 9,999 steps, only to the last one.


RA: You’ve also spoken about the problem of “statistical compassion.”


ES: Let’s call that the third reason why the population is asleep. American indifference to our own genocidal nuclear architecture comes from the constraints on compassion when large numbers of people stand to be injured. Public health physicians distinguish between narrative compassion (where one or two or three people are at risk) and statistical compassion (where thousands or millions are at risk). We’re fairly good at the first and have many occasions to strengthen our capacity through daily acts of friendship and from reading literature. We’re terrible at the second and have almost no training in strengthening our feeble abilities in this region. The nuclear peril of course entails the second: recent work on nuclear winter by Alan Robock and his colleagues shows that if even a small fraction of the current world arsenal is fired (one one-hundredth of one percent of the total available blast power), forty-four million people will be casualties on the first afternoon and one billion in the weeks following. The small shrug people make when the subject of nuclear weapons comes up—the little lift and fall of the shoulders—means they have just run a quick check on their interior brain-and-soul equipment and can report: nope, nothing in there in the way of statistical compassion.


RA: Narrative compassion and statistical compassion seem to take place in widely separate spheres. How then do you see them coming into conflict with each other? Can you talk about the nature of physical pain itself?


ES: In terms of our conversation now, we can say that a fourth and fifth reason for indifference arise from the difficulty of comprehending pain, whether it takes place in one person’s body or in the bodies of millions, and whether it occurs in the past, present, or future. (But if I were listing the reasons in the order of importance, these two would be near the top.) Once we exhaust a small handful of adjectives for physical pain, two metaphors arise: the metaphor of the weapon (one may say it feels as though a knife is sticking in my shoulder blade even if it isn’t); and that of body damage (one may say it feels as though my elbow has snapped in two, even if it hasn’t).

‘If even a small fraction of the world arsenal is fired, forty-four million people will be casualties on the first afternoon and one billion in the weeks following.’

Both metaphors, if carefully controlled, can help us understand the felt experience of another person’s pain; but both are highly volatile and can lead us far away from understanding. An example of the benign or genuinely expressive potential is provided by findings in neuroscience that we have mirror neurons that help us recognize another person’s physical pain. When you look at the actual experiments that were done, however, you see that the test subject is asked not to listen to a sufferer’s report of pain but to observe, for example, a pin being stuck into someone’s hand or the administration of a small electric shock. The experiments show not our comprehension of another person’s pain but our recognition of the aversiveness of being subjected to a weapon—often closely related to but by no means identical with physical pain.

The very fact that a weapon can be separated from the site of the injury means that the attributes of pain can be lifted away from the sufferer and conferred on the agents inflicting the harm, so now it is not the pain that is world destroying but the inflictor of the pain. There are many examples of this in the case of nuclear weapons. For example, the mushroom cloud is often regarded as “awesome,” some even say “sublime.” But the hibakasha, the survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, “We saw no mushroom cloud.” A mushroom cloud is what you see if you’re an observer far away, seated high in the sky in the airplane that dropped the weapon, or standing on the ground scores of miles beyond the radius of the harm.

Like any sensible mortal, I admire J. Robert Oppenheimer, but after the Trinity test, he is famous for saying, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture . . . I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This allows the scale of the injury to be transferred across the weapon and conferred on the agents, who now perceive themselves as magnificent, thrilling, almighty in their power. Oppenheimer even prefaced the quotation by saying that Vishnu here takes on a multi-armed form “to impress” the prince. The name Oppenheimer chose for the test, “Trinity,” shows this same fabrication of godlikeness. What if instead Oppenheimer had said, “I remembered the goddess Guanyin whose name means ‘The one who perceives the sounds of the world’ and the sounds I heard were excruciating cries, unbearable shrieks of tens of thousands scalded together in an instant of molten flesh.”

The nuclear architecture requires that either the weapon be invisible (buried in a submarine or buried in a cornfield, like the 450 ICBMs) or, when it is visible, it must become the path across which the magnificent prowess of the human agent is seen—he’s so thrilling, so important, so vulnerable that he alone deserves a fallout shelter. (The United States seems to believe that only the agents of nuclear holocaust deserve the chance for survival.) What should bring us to our knees in sorrow and shame instead brings about a dutiful salute to the thermonuclear monarch.


RA: That all follows from the instability of the weapon; what about the second field of representation, body damage?


‘People are indifferent because nuclear weapons are perceptually severed from the site of the pain.’ 

ES: The phenomenon of body damage is like the image of the weapon but works in a much different way—almost the opposite. Whereas the problem of the weapon is its very separability from the body, the problem of body damage is that it overlaps, overrides, and eclipses the personhood of the one underneath the damage. Either one looks away, or, if one looks, one recoils. Visual artists and writers—from Peter Paul Rubens and Andrea Mantegna in the Renaissance to fin de sie`cle artists Käthe Kollwitz, Aubrey Beardsley, Edvard Munch, Joris-Karl Huysmans, to twentieth-century Guatemalan writer Miguel Asturias—all solve this problem by finding a way to double the location, so that personhood remains intact in our perceptual field even if the human body is at that moment being obscenely shredded.

If you visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, you will probably find yourself, as I did, surrounded by young schoolchildren, who look with courage on the visages of those who were incompletely incinerated in the bombing of that city. In the United States, few adults face up to the faces of those harmed there. In February of 2016, the Central Square Library in Cambridge agreed to let me—and Joseph Gerson, an American Friends Service colleague—do a monthlong program on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with weekly lectures and an exhibit of books, drawings, and photographs. The morning after we put up the exhibit, we found all the photographs of injuries had been removed. Similarly, the effort to put on an exhibit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Smithsonian Institution in 1994 led to such controversy that it had to be canceled—with one exception: the Enola Gay (the plane that delivered the bomb) was put on display.


A display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.


Here we circle back to the phenomenon of the weapon being perceptually severed from the site of the pain. It’s in part because of museums like those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that so many people in the Japanese population are passionately in support of nuclear disarmament.


RA: I’ve heard you talk before about the striking protocols used in burn units to help doctors and nurses in looking at burn victims. It seems so intuitively right that caretakers would have difficulty looking at these patients. It seems to suggest something about the limits on the imagination in terms of suffering. I’m wondering what it is about burns that makes it so hard to imagine the suffering they entail. Is it about the skin as the site of humanity? Is it about the face?


ES: It is the visage. Without preparation and help, when we see the complete mutilation of the body, especially the face, we mistakenly feel we are seeing the mutilation of personhood. The “rule of nines” is devised to enable rescue workers to look at a gravely burned person and (instead of having their own minds shut down in sorrow and confusion and revulsion) to assess instantly the gravity of the injury, start appropriate treatment, and report the scale of the injury to the hospital awaiting the person’s arrival. Each part of the body is assigned an easy-to-remember number that is a multiple of nine. Counting forms a key part in many forms of emergency rescue, and this is one instance. The numbers, once totaled, tell the rescuer the next step, such as whether to insert an IV for fluid resuscitation.



The need to train the perceptions of those who help those who are burned is also illustrated by a procedure called “staying.” During the years when I was part of a research group on suffering at the Hastings Center for Ethics, I heard a lecture by a physician-nurse who worked in a burn unit. She mentioned that because of the difficulty of looking at a severely burned person, nurses assigned to burn units may begin to avert their eyes when speaking with a patient, decline to touch the patient, or stand at a greater distance each day, or request a transfer after a few days. To counteract these problems, caretakers can participate in a class on “staying” where they recognize the temptation to withdraw from the patient and practice trying to overcome that withdrawal.

‘Thousands will require burn beds. But what few there are—one Boston hospital has only seven—will disappear in a nuclear strike.’

While the “rule of nines” and “staying” are brilliant inventions, we should recognize that in nuclear war there will be few rescue workers and nurses. A study in the Netherlands of what would happen if a terrorist brought into Rotterdam a very small 12 kg weapon (the size used in World War II) found that of those who had not immediately evaporated, four thousand persons would require burn beds. They noted that in all of the Netherlands there are only a hundred burn beds. A leading hospital in Boston, Mass General, has seven burn beds. The burn beds themselves—what few there are—will disappear in a nuclear strike. On the floor of the UK Parliament, the possession of four Trident submarines has repeatedly been justified by the potential need to bomb Moscow. In response, a Scottish study by John Ainslie looked at the scale of damage that would actually take place if a nuclear missile were launched against the Ministry of Defense building in Moscow: along with the Ministry of Defense, four major hospitals would be destroyed and four others subjected to fire and radiation that would make them inoperable. Thirty-one schools would also be destroyed with at least 700,000 children slain. If the missile is larger, so, too, will the disappearance of hospitals be larger. An article by Steven Starr, Lynn Eden, and Theodore A. Postol in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists shows that if an 800-kiloton weapon were detonated above Manhattan, the center of the blast would be four times the temperature of the sun, and, within “tens of minutes,” a firestorm will cover 90 to 150 square miles.


RA: Let’s return to Gandhi’s forking path. You’ve sketched the reasons why the U.S. population is innocently sleeping. But what if they’re feigning sleep?


ES: I am sometimes floored by the discrepancy between the attention we give to injuries that have happened when we can’t do anything to change them and the attention we give to injuries that haven’t yet happened when by intervention we absolutely can prevent them. I don’t know how to explain this. I have always assumed that those acts of trying to talk about the pain of torture victims in the 1970s in my case, or the pain of people in World War II, the Holocaust, that those acts are meant to act as a warning to the future. What is our motive for thinking about the unchangeable injuries of the past if not to increase our ability to prevent such injuries in the future? Yet almost incomprehensible is the distance between the willingness to think about events from the past we can’t possibly change and the complete comfort with feeling that future massacres need not concern us. Or worse, that one is slightly superior to protesting a wrong: intellectually superior because the moral wrong is an obvious moral wrong, and we only like to address sophisticated, hard to discern moral wrongs. It might be embarrassing to have to stand on a street corner with a sign or attend a public meeting. Imagine, though, if we forgave the complicity with past acts of enslavement or genocide by saying, “People saw that it was wrong, but they considered it too intellectually obvious, too compromising of their dignity, to have to stand up and protest.”

‘Is the U.S. population innocently sleeping? Or are they feigning sleep?’

Or take the argument that the aspiration to dismantle nuclear weapons is now many decades old, and we must turn to fresh undertakings: imagine that someone tried to defend those who tolerated slavery in 1860 because they had been hearing antislavery sentiment since 1820 and now considered such sentiments “stale.” We would never give a “pass” to anyone in the past who excused their inattention to slavery or the transfer of people to concentration camps on either of those two grounds; yet we believe such arguments release us from addressing weapons whose outcome is instant genocide. There are historical periods in which people were dissuaded from protesting because dissidents were beaten (Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate) or killed (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany). No such beatings or death threats excuse our own silence today.


RA: You’ve said that it would be terrible to eliminate the right to bear arms. Can you say more as to why? This is a somewhat counterintuitive claim in the current era of gun violence.


ES: The Second Amendment, if properly understood and acted upon, makes nuclear weapons illegal and should be used in the courts to require the country to dismantle its missiles. At the beginning of our conversation I mentioned that we are no longer called upon to participate in, and hence make decisions about, whether our country goes to war: we simply wait for a television report about whether “we” are at war. Nor is there any way that we, or any other human being or animal or plant on earth can defend ourselves against an incoming missile. We have lost the right of self-defense. The right of self-defense is arguably the right underlying every other right: free speech matters for a thousand reasons, but the primary reason is that it enhances my ability to protect myself; so, too, with many of the other rights, such as fair trial and due process and the right to vote. The Second Amendment specifies that it is up to the U.S. population to defend the country and to make decisions about whether the country ever acts to injure a foreign population. If a sizable portion of us have to be persuaded that there are strong reasons to go to war, that’s a strong brake, a strong test, of whether we ought to go to war. Right now, there are no brakes. The Second Amendment’s repudiation of a “standing army” is a repudiation of any military force that serves at the discretion of the executive without the sanction of the citizenry. A nuclear weapon is everything that was detested (and regarded as illegal) in the “standing army.”


RA: Do you think that meaning is recoverable?


‘The Second Amendment, if properly understood and acted upon, makes nuclear weapons illegal.’

ES: The idea has been completely obscured in the nuclear age and is now so widely misunderstood—seeming to license machine guns in reckless hands turned on fellow citizens—that it may be easier to eliminate the amendment and start over, as thousands of people have said, and most clearly the high school students in Parkland, Florida. Though you would have trouble getting such a repeal of the amendment through Congress, once you did so, I imagine it might be ratified by the population because people are rightly horrified by the American use of guns. According to recent articles, 187,000 schoolchildren have been in a school where there was gun violence. Right now it seems there are only two options: keep the right to bear arms and continue to witness shootings in schools, streets, and workplaces, or repeal the right to bear arms altogether. But there is a third alternative: the left has to listen to the right, and the right has to listen to the left. At present, we’re not on speaking terms on this issue: each side holds the other in contempt. But there may be threads of truth on both sides out of which a weave of shared comprehension could be arrived at. Ours is a citizenry that needs to relearn what courage is; it’s not shooting schoolchildren, and it’s not firing nuclear missiles at the innocent citizenry of a foreign nation.


A longer version of this interview originally appeared in a special issue of journal Representations (Vol. 146 on “The Social Life of Pain”), published by the University of California Press. Reprinted with permission here © 2019 by the Regents of the University of California.