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 poem-like construct:
MAKES IT THINKABLE
Sitting atop the pedestal is a glowing facsimile of an atomic explosion, illuminating the issue at hand. This element makes the unthinkable real in 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. Despite the absence of any insurance that all nuclear powers agree with this paradigm, the US has based its deterrence and stability model on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which supports the retention by each of the global nuclear powers of sufficient capability for mutual destruction. MAD rests on an U.S.-centric definition of a faith in human rationality, a position sitting on shaky ground in today’s tumultuous and unpredictable world. The question Dailey therefore raises in his sculpture is whether a persistent U.S. belief in an unsubstantiated deterrence model—thinking that the unthinkable is unthinkable—may actually increase the likelihood of nuclear war rather than enhance stability.