Obama at Hiroshima: No apology, but a lecture on 'moral revolution'

Reading the text of President Obama's somber speech in Hiroshima, there is a growing feeling that the president is disconnected from reality.

To be sure, he largely succeeds when he connects wars from the beginning of humanity, through Hiroshima, to today.  But his call to match the technological revolution that gave us the bomb with a "moral revolution" to help us rid the world of them lacks any relevant context.

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.

Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

Would Iran engage in a "moral revolution" on nuclear weapons?  They believe they already had that moral revolution in 1979, where Islam would justify using the bomb to destroy its enemies.

How about al-Qaeda or ISIS?  They believe they are a moral revolution, and if they got their hands on a nuclear weapon, they would use it in good conscience to destroy the enemies of Islam.

An appeal to morality may work with Western countries, and perhaps Russia and China.  But to base the drive to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world on the notion that all parties that currently have the bomb or want the bomb are operating on the same moral plane as Obama is naive and incredibly dangerous.  Lost in all this moral preening is the notion that there are some very violent and radical groups out there that wouldn't hesitate to let loose a nuclear disaster within our borders, and no amount of spechifying or earnest words will change that reality. 

Except the president doesn't recognize that reality.  Or if he does, he minimizes the danger.  At bottom, while the president scores for the historical sweep of his speech, he fails in its primary objective: justifying the elimination of nuclear weapons on moral grounds.

Reading the text of President Obama's somber speech in Hiroshima, there is a growing feeling that the president is disconnected from reality.

To be sure, he largely succeeds when he connects wars from the beginning of humanity, through Hiroshima, to today.  But his call to match the technological revolution that gave us the bomb with a "moral revolution" to help us rid the world of them lacks any relevant context.

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.

Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

Would Iran engage in a "moral revolution" on nuclear weapons?  They believe they already had that moral revolution in 1979, where Islam would justify using the bomb to destroy its enemies.

How about al-Qaeda or ISIS?  They believe they are a moral revolution, and if they got their hands on a nuclear weapon, they would use it in good conscience to destroy the enemies of Islam.

An appeal to morality may work with Western countries, and perhaps Russia and China.  But to base the drive to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world on the notion that all parties that currently have the bomb or want the bomb are operating on the same moral plane as Obama is naive and incredibly dangerous.  Lost in all this moral preening is the notion that there are some very violent and radical groups out there that wouldn't hesitate to let loose a nuclear disaster within our borders, and no amount of spechifying or earnest words will change that reality. 

Except the president doesn't recognize that reality.  Or if he does, he minimizes the danger.  At bottom, while the president scores for the historical sweep of his speech, he fails in its primary objective: justifying the elimination of nuclear weapons on moral grounds.