The Marshall Islands await their day in court. / Stefan Lins
Scott Beauchamp,  April 16, 2015

The Most Contaminated Place in the World

The Marshall Islands await their day in court. / Stefan Lins
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One of the more tragic results of the Information Age’s ballyhooed shrinking (or flattening or scrunching or crumpling) of the world is that we’re better apprised of international tragedies while also feeling less able to do anything about them. There’s an ethereal, vague sense of “responsibility,” or sometimes culpability, that grazes on the collective guilt of informed citizens living in rich countries. But it bolts into the far distance as soon as the latest season of House of Cards is ready to stream. And besides, what would you do for the women in India anyway? There’s no longer much cachet to the nineties-era slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”—increasingly we lack the wherewithal to do either. The historian Thomas Haskell called our overabundant data access a form of “recipe knowledge”—i.e., a set of directives explaining how to prepare meals that are never actually cooked or consumed. As our age’s trademark interlocking conditions of overconnectivity and obscene imbalances of power continue to burgeon in lockstep, it’s not just we sad-sack private citizens who long to be able to “do something.” Nation-states lack recipe knowledge, too.

Take the Marshall Islands—a small chain of land masses in the Pacific—to be precise, seventy thousand-people-spread-out-over-a-thousand-tiny-islands small. Western colonial powers have had them twisting in the wind at least since the Spaniard Alonso de Salazar caught sight of a Marshall atoll in 1526. And their underdog status continued on the global map of realpolitik for centuries after that. If you’ve heard of the Islands at all, it’s most likely as a footnote in the history of the dawn of the atomic age. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested sixty-seven nuclear devices in the Marshalls, turning a pristine equatorial paradise into a military proving ground crackling with radioactivity. In 1956, the United States Atomic Energy Commission called the Marshall Islands “by far the most contaminated place in the world.”

Unfortunately, America’s collective memory has a much shorter half-life than strontium-90. While we breezed past the Cold War to boldly face the End of History—shifting our focus to the more noble pursuits of creating Twitter, Gak, and an industrial-incraceration complex to rival the Gulags, the Marshall Islands continued to invisibly smolder. Keeping up the pretense of actually caring, Americans shuffled the islanders around here and there during the testing, uh, boom of the fifites—though these maneuvers seem in retrospect more of a bid to placate them in the short term than any actual effort to secure their health and safety.

Some were forced from their homes in the forties and only allowed to return in the seventies, only to be relocated again in 1978 after food grown on the site tested for radiation in hazardous quantities. People on Rongelap Atoll were permitted to return to their homes in 1957, but left again in 1985 after rumors about lingering levels of radiation proved to be true. (Surprise, surprise.) Rongelapers suffered from “tissue destructive effects” long after the testing stopped. The infamous 1954 “Bravo 1” testing of a 15-ton hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, bathed the Bikini Atoll in radioactivity. Sixty years afterward, people are still afraid to return.

Besides the long-term health effects, confirmed by a UN fact-finding mission, there’s also the inequity of forced displacement. For generations now, Marshall natives have been forced from their homes. It’s easy for Americans not to take cultural upheaval seriously, since our own cheap strip-mall culture is predicated upon a spiritually bankrupt “disruption economy.” But as Lani Kramer, a councilwoman for the Bikini Atoll’s local government, told the Guardian, “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage—our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation.” The Marshallese were once incomparable navigators, using stick and shell maps to traverse the Pacific. Now they have radioactive food and the Internet. Progress, you see, is inevitable.

To begin contesting their persistent state of non-citizenship, Marshallers have started to sue their American occupiers. They’re not seeking cash settlements, even though the $2 billion awarded to them by the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claim Tribunal ceased paying out before its coffers were emptied. No, in a wonderful moral jujitsu maneuver, the Marshalls have decided to sue the United States for not meeting its obligations to move toward nuclear disarmament as spelled out in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In a rare and brief moment of late-sixties global lucidity, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was ratified, and ostensibly went into effect in 1970. One-hundred ninety-one states, and all but four UN members, are signatories. The NPT is structured around three “pillars”: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the right to peaceful nuclear technology.

The Marshall Islands filed suit against America, together with eight other nuclear powers, last year in a San Francisco courtroom. The complaint was straightforward enough: The plaintiffs alleged that their occupying superpower had continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals in defiance of Article VI of the NPT. President Barack Obama, who won his Nobel Peace Prize largely due to the overheated rhetoric of declarations about “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” is one of the named defendants.

This kind of thing is pretty much unprecedented, and so federal courts aren’t really sure what to do with the Marshall complaint, beyond ritually throwing it out of court. But the plaintiffs are undeterred, and have filed appeal after appeal. When judge Jeff White initially dismissed the case in February, he said, “Requiring the court to delve into and then monitor United States policies and decisions with regard to its nuclear programs and arsenal is an untenable request far beyond the purview of the federal courts.” True enough. But that just highlights a bigger problem: the nuclear dealings of the executive branch are beyond the purview of anyone.

It’s a particularly ironic legal situation for the United States to find itself in as Congress and Obama try to iron out the terms of a nonproliferation accord with Iran. But the quiet legal battle speaks to a larger trend—the downgrading of our nuclear fears to procedural diplomatic bids to prevent nefarious “rogue states” or “individual actors” from getting ahold of nuclear weaponry. After all, nuclear technology doesn’t become less dangerous by virtue of being in the possession of nation-states like America, India, Pakistan, or Israel.

The United States has the dubious honor of being the only power to use them to incinerate entire civilian populations—to say nothing of the scads of people affected by our testing, as the Marshall Islands’ case shows. The only barrier between the world and America’s nuclear arsenal are the moral faculties of a single individual (who post-2016, could be named Ted Cruz) and rapidly aging technological safeguards. There was once a vibrant anti-nuclear movement in America that took notice of these dangers and dedicated itself, sometimes radically, to working toward a nuclear-free world. People of conscience pouring blood onto nuclear facility files and damaging nuclear warheads are of a different order than the litigation of the Marshall Islands. In reality, though, they’re largely means to the same end—DIY attempts to solve a problem so vast and daunting that it seems to defy the very notion of “recipe knowledge.” And maybe, if the tiny Marshalls get their ultimate day in court, they might create a greatly outsized precedent for the ongoing struggle to render our world a bit less hot, flat, crowded—and incineration-prone.

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The AtlanticRolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among other places.

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