What’s the worst way to die? Most will agree that perishing in a fire is at or close to the top of their list.
A number of factors inform those members of the America public who are in favor of the United States maintaining nuclear weapons to deter other nations. On one level, they fear the loss of liberty, which, during the Cold War, translated into life under communism should the Soviet Union defeat us. (Of course, the fall of communism begs the question: to which form of government do we fear being subjected should Russia defeat us today? A nominally more flagrant plutocracy than currently rules in the United States?)
Meanwhile, those subject to fear of a nuclear-terrorism attack by Islamist extremists tend to operate under the assumption that only death awaits us. Faced by an equally plausible scenario in which we’re held hostage to their demands, we’d instead fear shariah law. (Just a cut below Stalinism, according to the hard right.)
Much of the public believes that even if nuclear weapons fail to prevent an attack by another nuclear-weapon state, at least we’ll be able to use them to retaliate and ensure the survival of the United States. Of course, this reflects an ignorance of just how damaged the United States would be after a first strike by another country, as well as a disturbing acceptance of mass death in warfare to the nth agree (a topic for another day).
To reiterate, at the most primal level, we fear fire. But, the implications of it are too dreadful for most of us to contemplate. Instead we erect a firewall, if you will, in our psyche that insulates us from the knowledge that nuclear war likely means death by fire.
Nor does our lack of knowledge of history help. Hiroshima aside, how many have learned or recall learning of the firestorms created by the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in World War II? If war is a nightmare, firestorms are the stuff of horror films.
Fire has a way of reducing matters to the essentials. In other words, if being consumed by flames ranks as the most frightening form of death, ergo, avoiding death by fire outranks avoiding life under communism or under shariah law. But there also exists among the American public those who seek not to escape death by fire, but actually embrace the prospect of an apocalyptic conflagration. This theatrical means of escorting them to the afterlife will also, they believe, purge the planet of its wickedness.
The difficulty that nuclear disarmament advocates face is opening up Americans (those who don’t embrace the end times, anyway) to the fear of fire that nuclear war represents. Unfortunately, Americans seem only to respond to scare tactics from the right.