I grew up at the end of the cold war so I think the image of the mushroom cloud was imprinted in me as a symbol of dread from a young age, and even now it shocks me to think that two atom bombs were used to end the Second World War. Sixty-seven years ago today, Truman was considering the need to drop a third. What’s more surprising, though, is that in that time, no U.S. President has visited the sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki marking those nuclear explosions. Truman’s grandson attended a memorial this year, and Obama broke protocol two years ago by sending a representative, but the idea that the President would attend a memorial is still seen as an admission of guilt. For now, the U.S. just ignores it.
Although a nuclear disaster is about as likely as ever, I imagine today’s children fear plane hijackings more than annihilation and radiation, due to the images and ideas that come up when danger and evil are discussed. My parents did not intend to give me a particular impression but I learned from cultural background noise that nuclear explosions are terrifying long before I had specific reasons to think so. Unlike abstract formulations like “killing is wrong,” which could become complicated or unclear, certain aesthetic facts were absolute precisely because they were not arguments. Hitler was evil before I knew any history, just due to his salute, his mustache, his voice – and the bomb was horrific not because of numbers but because of a red button and a white cloud.
The feeling about Hitler remains in the public consciousness; he is still a standard representative of evil. But the atom bomb has a more complicated story and its level of terror has been reduced. From a consequentialist point of view the choice to use it can be defended with the claim that the casualty rate would have been much worse had the US gone in traditionally (and certainly it’s true if Allied soldiers are kept distinct), and that the war would have gone on indefinitely without the terror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hit the point home (and the point was made not just to Japan but internationally). Other justifications are also offered, ranging from a right to punish the Japanese to a need to use the new technology once it had been developed.
But having grown up with that basic sense of horror about a nuclear bomb, arguments about the particulars are never quite convincing. Legalistically, terms may be set that show an action is allowable, but ethics can’t be boiled down so completely. There is some human component, a sense of self, of aspiration, of recognition, that will not fit into the equation. Abstract comparisons of right and wrong can be satisfying but when the story is intertwined with life our charts sometimes fade to the background. Agamben describes such a difference between the ethical and the juridical when addressing Auschwitz, claiming that ethical responsibility cannot be handled like a debt. When an ethical bond is broken, it cannot just be paid off. Ethical responsibility is of another kind, not another amount.
Of course no one would try to defend the need for Auschwitz. But were we to accept a consequentialist point of view, the primary difference between the two would be a question of debit or credit—Germany’s actions would leave them in terrible moral debt, whereas Hiroshima might not quite bankrupt the U.S. account thanks to moral credit earned for ending the war and stopping the aggressors. The question is simply, can an act be balanced out by an equal and opposite act, or are some values invaluable? Is ethics more like physics or art?
There is an argument against Agamben’s view that it merely results in a kind of infinite guilt or a burden that will never be paid off, but that is only when it is viewed from the utilitarian, almost economic, perspective. If responsibility is more like response or recognition toward those who have experienced wrong, and less a feeling of debt toward a given party, the notion of feeling responsible can be a source of connection. In this sense the purpose of ethics is more creative than restrictive – to be the best form of ourselves, rather than to negotiate acceptable boundaries.
Last weekend I saw the German filmmaker Wim Wenders in a one-on-one with Michael Moore, and they got into a conversation about what it was like to grow up in post-Nazi Germany. Wenders opened up to Moore and revealed his experience traveling in France as a young man where he was routinely ostracized for the association, and seemed affected when he spoke of one Jewish family that eventually forgave him.
Moore didn’t miss a beat – he didn’t dwell on how Wenders hadn’t even been born yet when the Nazis were in power – and asked how the family could possibly have forgiven him, considering what they went through. Nor did Wenders try to defend himself; he simply said the human spirit is strong, and sometimes forgiveness is for the ones forgiving.