Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Continuing Debate

By Roshana Nabi '01

The justification for the creation of weapons of mass destruction and deterrence policies is that the threat of overwhelming destruction will deter states from waging war. The mention of weapons of mass destruction, however, does not bring about collective sighs of relief. Apart from the obvious disrespect for life that these weapons imply, there is something fundamentally immoral and untrustworthy in attempting to secure peace by threatening violence. It is horrifying to think that the human race is the only species on earth to have conceived and developed the technology to destroy itself, and that we are capable of reducing our own lives to mere bargaining chips. Given these daunting realizations, the moral aspects of weapons of mass destruction cannot be ignored.

During "Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Continuing Debate," a symposium held April 26 at Mount Holyoke, Kanti Bajpai from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Steven Lee from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Lucinda Peach from American University, and Michael Walzer from the Institute for Advanced Study, discussed moral issues surrounding the creation and use of weapons of mass destruction. Each panelist addressed the following three questions: Is the development of weapons of mass destruction for deterrence a moral option? Is it moral to prevent states from having weapons of mass destruction if other states have them? What does the future hold for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and can moral debate have an impact? The resounding conclusion of all the panelists was that the creation and use of weapons of mass destruction, in and of itself, is immoral. However, they all recognized that there are times when the pragmatic use of weapons of mass destruction might be unavoidable.
The arguments were compelling. Walzer went so far as to suggest that the world might be safer because the United States has the atom bomb. The rationale was that the American threat might quell the aggressive tendencies of rogue states that fear retaliation by the United States. Bajpai pointed out that given a publicly stated threat by an aggressive state, sufficient evidence to suggest that the state has the capacity to follow through with the threat, and the failure of negotiations and conventional weapons to solve the issue at hand, it might be justified for a threatened state to adopt a policy of deterrence. Peach supported this claim by pointing out that war is morally obligatory for self-defense. Lee suggested that the possession of weapons of mass destruction might be permissible as long as they are capable of being used with discrimination.

However, the panelists also agreed that the end of the Cold War has given the international community an unprecedented window of opportunity to dismantle the system that supports weapons of mass destruction. Lee stated that because the United States is the only remaining superpower, it cannot squander the opportunity to act morally. United States disarmament is especially necessary as an example for other nations not to arm themselves, to remove the motivation of other states to have weapons of mass destruction, and to support the international regime for disarmament. Peach stated that the cost of development in the United States of weapons of mass destruction is now too high for a policy of deterrence, given that the United States has many other pressing domestic concerns, such as homelessness and health care.

Despite this opportunity that has arisen due to the end of the Cold War, President Bush continues to support the possession of United States weapons of mass destruction and the development of a defense shield and to offer guidance to European states who want to do the same. As Walzer pointed out, although it would be unrealistic to expect states to completely give up weapons of mass destruction solely for moral purposes, states must try to maneuver themselves within the system and dismantle it at the same time.

Sohail Hashmi, newly named Associate Professor of International Relations on the Alumnae Foundation and the moderator of the symposium, ended the discussion by asking the audience: Do we as citizens have a moral responsibility to care about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? The question certainly made me question my own sense of responsibility. Although it is easy to forget about this issue while we are studying or working, it is a reality that weapons of mass destruction exist and that they do have the ability to destroy to an incomprehensible degree. Maybe we push the issue aside because the level of destruction is so incomprehensible. Maybe we push it aside because it is more comfortable for us to believe that others are taking care of the problem. But, the issue is everyone’s concern. The issue is about our lives, our dignity, and our future.
This public symposium was held on the eve of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Diverse Ethical Perspectives, a three-day conference, held at MHC, that focused on the ethics of developing and disseminating nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The symposium and conference were sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Ethikon Institute.



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