A Literary Scholar’s Voice in the Wilderness via The Chronicle of Higher Education

Elaine Scarry fights American complacency 
about nuclear arms

John Dear is a Catholic priest who has chosen an especially haunted place to keep vigil. For the past 12 years, he has lived alongside the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic age and the country’s flagship nuclear facility, where he organizes regular protests. He has also written a steady stream of books and spoken widely, making him a troublesome man around town. After years of efforts to rein him in, the Jesuit order ejected Dear in December. His vocation is ever more that of a hermit.

“None of my friends are working on nukes anymore,” he says. “This is the most evil place on the planet, and nobody’s talking about it.”

One exception is Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun and another longtime member of the Plowshares antinuclear movement. In 2012, with two fellow activists, Rice broke into the secure nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where they splashed blood and hung protest signs. The security breach made headlines and prompted a Congressional investigation—into the breach, not the nuclear weapons themselves. Rice, who is expected to be sentenced this month, may spend the rest of her life in prison for the protest.

Nowadays, if nuclear weapons make a blip on the radar of public discourse, it is in reference to preventing their spread to nations such as Iran, although the United States still holds more than 5,000 warheads of its own. As an undergraduate, Barack Obama once wrote an article calling for nuclear abolition, but when his administration announced plans to build a new generation of such weapons, the outcry was mainly among those at the margins, like Dear and Rice.


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