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Armageddon Can Wait

The keepers of the Doomsday Clock haven't seen it any closer to midnight--yet.


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The September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center sparked a rash of calls to the Hyde Park-based Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science--home of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists--about its Doomsday Clock, which has symbolically measured how close the human race is to an all-out nuclear war since 1947. Visits to nearly doubled last month, to 125,000.

"When things like this happen we like to think about how things will shake out, as opposed to whether this means that automatically things will get worse or better. The attacks by themselves are not enough to move the clock, because they did not by themselves transform the global security environment," says BAS publisher Stephen Schwartz, noting that the clock did not move after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, nor after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

These days the clock is only moved when there's a lot of global unrest all at once--like in 1981, when conflicts were raging simultaneously in Poland, South Africa, and Afghanistan. So it was an exception last time the clock was moved, from 14 to 9 minutes before midnight in 1998, based mostly on India and Pakistan's flurry of nuclear weapons testing in May of that year. "It screamed out for some sort of recognition," says Schwartz, who admits he's troubled by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.

"This is not the most stable place to fight a war. There are refugees flowing back and forth across the border. You have people in these countries who can be very supportive of the Taliban and bin Laden, but governments who are not supportive of him. There's still the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, which has not slowed down significantly since 1998. You have the possibility of Pakistan being destabilized, and then what happens to their nuclear arsenal? The fact that they have a military government is somewhat in our favor, and it probably won't lead to anything catastrophic. But these are dicey times."

The group was already concerned about George Bush's proposed missile defense system, his desire to put weapons in space, and the trend toward voiding bilateral and multinational arms control agreements in favor of unilateral ones "that can be overturned as soon as a new president comes into office." Even more worrisome is that "in some circles they're discussing using nuclear weapons against the Taliban."

The clock has been moved 16 times. It has stood as close as two minutes to midnight only once--in 1953, after both the U.S. and the USSR successfully tested hydrogen bombs. It was turned back the farthest--to 17 minutes before midnight--in 1991, after the two superpowers signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

There are actually three Doomsday Clocks. Schwartz has the original wooden one, designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf, in his office. It's not used anymore; after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, the BAS unveiled a redesigned clock (which sits in a third-floor conference room) made of metal and featuring a world map on its face. "A new clock for a new era," says Schwartz. "It's based on global concerns and global fears and global issues."

The third is a giant mock-up of the original that's kept in a storeroom and hauled out for press conferences. While there are no plans to change the time, the subject is likely to come up at an EFNS board meeting next month. "Having a board meeting doesn't necessarily mean we'll be making a decision," says Schwartz. "Or if we make a decision, it would happen at the meeting. It just means we're physically getting together to talk."

If they do decide to change the time Schwartz says he'd like to use the real (redesigned) clock this time. "I think it's important for people to see it." i

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