Thinking the Unthinkable
The foundation of conventional belief that nuclear warfare is “unthinkable” has been the notion that the inevitability of an unmitigated catastrophe is its own deterrent. Brian Dailey questions the wisdom of this belief in his sculpture Thinking the Unthinkable. The work pivots around a rectangular granite column, forcing the viewer to read the artist’s haiku-like construct:
MAKES IT THINKABLE
Sitting atop the plinth is an imposing orb symbolic of the “pit” or “demon pit,” the primary nuclear “trigger” used in the design of the modern-day hydrogen bomb. The buffered surface of this form diffuses and distorts the reflective light, a literal reflection of our nation’s lack of clear vision in its approach to deterrence. This element makes the unthinkable real in enigmatic visual form, suggesting that nuclear war is menacingly proximate rather than improbably remote.
Far from being an abstract debate, the belief in the idea that nuclear warfare is inconceivable has guided US arms control strategy, and therefore the assumptions of its policymakers, from the beginning of arms limitation talks in the early 1970s to today. The question Dailey therefore raises in his sculpture is whether a persistent U.S. belief in a nationalistic deterrence model—thinking that the unthinkable is unthinkable—may actually increase the likelihood of nuclear war rather than enhance stability.