September 26, 1983, I was a sophomore, which meant that the day probably passed in a blur for me. I had a routine: coffee and donuts at the snackery in the student union, then to the computer terminal room to check my email.
I went everywhere by bicycle, then, and had perfected a one-pedal mount, with my hip against the top-tube and no hands on the handlebars. I usually had my nose in a book as I rode. Everyone ignored me and I ignored everyone except for a small handful of friends. That was how my days passed: playing Empire on the pdp-11, sending email, writing code, doing crafts (at that time, mostly making chainmail armor) and watching matinees at the art theater, The Charles, a few minutes south in what would later be my neighborhood.
What did not happen: the sun did not rise in the west. I did not burst into flame from the radiant heat. The glass from parked cars and shattered windows did not flense me at speeds up to 50mph. The cloud of burning did not rise over Washington to the west like a miles-wide thor’s hanmer. Nothing burned. The world did not end. None of us knew. I probably slept well that night.
Some time that day (we are not sure when, it might have been dark in Baltimore) in Oko* the soviet ballistic missile monitoring center – their equivalent of our NORAD – Stanislav Petrov cleared an alert indicating 5 inbound US ballistic missiles.
Petrov didn’t think it was a particularly big deal, it later turned out to be a reflection into the sensors of a surveillance satellite. If he had reported it, his superiors might have ordered a counter-strike, and my – and everyone else’s – day would have been irrevocably changed.
When I say “everyone’s day” I’m not exaggerating. It’s hard to learn the details about targeting doctrines and what was in place and when but at various times the monsters who designed the US’ nuclear war strategy also targeted China for destruction, because it simply would not do for the US and USSR to obliterate each other and leave China in charge.
Take a second, look away from your computer, defocus your eyes or look out the window, and think about that. Think about Petrov. He says it wasn’t a big decision and, at various times he was praised for it, and at others criticized.
The demons still lurk, ready to go. Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama appears to be ready to commit about a trillion dollars of US taxpayer’s money to a “nuclear refresh” which will mean more demons in caves and under oceans, more hypocrisy as the US – which has proliferated nuclear bombs outright to politically unstable allies like Turkey – wags its finger at North Korea for building one or two. Whoever is US president next will almost certainly proceed with the new weapons. To make the world safe for power-hungry assholes.
We’ve lived longer than Richard Feyman expected. Feynman wrote a piece once, about sitting in a diner in New York, thinking about the blast radius and the glass:
I sat in a restaurant in New York, for example, and I looked out at the buildings and I began to think, you know, about how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was and so forth… How far from here was 34th street?… All those buildings, all smashed — and so on. And I would go along and I would see people building a bridge, or they’d be making a new road, and I thought, they’re crazy, they just don’t understand, they don’t understand. Why are they making new things? It’s so useless.
But, fortunately, it’s been useless for almost forty years now, hasn’t it? So I’ve been wrong about it being useless making bridges and I’m glad those other people had the sense to go ahead.
What Feynman missed is that there are ordinary people. Non-monster people. Non-totalitarians. People who do not let following orders turn them into automata. People like Stanislav Petrov.
Petrov says it wasn’t a big decision and he doesn’t talk about it much.
(* Russian for “eye”)