Melissa Hanham is an academic who studies nuclear-arms proliferation, and when she sat down to write a Twitter thread about the uniquely dangerous nature of these weapons and the cavalier way they were being discussed, she faced a dilemma: Should she show the true cost of their use?
She considered posting pictures from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945: "I thought of the famous images I knew, people removing skin with chopsticks, of black rain, of the shadows of people who were vaporized against walls. And I thought that's heavy and dark. … I'm not sure if it would just be horror porn. But I also didn't know how to share evidence of what it really meant.''
This, in an era of renewed nuclear anxiety, is a question that scholars and disarmament activists are facing. How to convey the unique threat to a public that has largely lost its knowledge of nuclear weapons? In a tweet thread that was widely shared, Ms. Hanham opted not to post those pictures, settling instead for talking about the ways in which a nuclear war could disrupt ecosystems and potentially end life on the planet.
"The frustration I have is borne out of how casually we've started to talk about [nuclear weapons] as tools," Ms. Hanham said in an interview from Monterey, Calif., where she's a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Even the students she teaches have little sense of the destruction they could cause.
That informality is drifting through popular culture as a bizarre blend of absurd humour and dread. The U.S. President calls Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man," and threatens to "totally destroy" North Korea in a speech at the United Nations, a body created to elevate diplomacy over violence. In return, the North Korean dictator calls Donald Trump "a deranged U.S. dotard," and has his foreign minister warn of the "inevitable" visit of nuclear missiles to the mainland United States. Late-night comedians have a field day with end-of-the-world jokes. "Dotard" T-shirts appear for sale immediately. It's all hilarious.
Except that it isn't, of course. William Perry, the former U.S. secretary of defence who tried to negotiate an end to the North Korean nuclear program under president Bill Clinton, recently warned that "we're sleepwalking into a war." Last week, a disarmament group called Beyond the Bomb projected a series of Mr. Trump's most alarming pronouncements about nuclear weapons on the wall of the Trump International Hotel. The slide show ended with the words: "Trump is a bomb threat. This is not a game."
That last phrase echoes the famous line in the 1983 film War Games, in which the world is accidentally brought to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and is saved only by a brat savant played by Matthew Broderick. In the early 1980s, nuclear anxiety was at a cultural peak, with grim TV movies such as The Day After and Threads, and bestsellers such as Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth. Hundreds of thousands of people marched for disarmament in New York in 1982, in one of the largest protests in U.S. history.
Thirty-four years ago, people were still reacting to the Soviet-U.S. tensions of the Cold War. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fresher in the mind. Adults could remember ducking and covering in nuclear drills at school. Now, those fears have been replaced by other existential threats, such as worry over climate change. As Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, a book about nuclear near-misses, has said: "The greatest threat we face today is complacency and a lack of awareness of what these weapons can do to us."
There is much talk about the Trump-Kim diss fest, for example, but little coverage of the United States contemplating a potentially hugely destabilizing deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, casually called "mini-nukes." There is even less coverage of the non-nuclear states' painstaking negotiation of a nuclear-ban treaty, which was finalized in July and is currently being ratified at the United Nations (more than 50 countries have signed so far).
Perhaps it's time for a bit more nuclear anxiety; it's certainly preferable to nuclear hilarity. As Ms. Hanham says, we are at a perilous place when "we don't respect the terror of this weapon any more."