Every year around this time- the Feast of the Transfiguration and the commemoration of Hiroshima- I am again struck by the strange synchronicity of these things, and by the blasphemy that surrounded the atomic bomb.
They named the test site Trinity, and Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita when he witnessed the first test bomb, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, managing double sacrilege, appropriating the Divine Name and divine power as well. And then they chose the Feast of the Transfiguration to destroy Hiroshima.
Did they do this knowingly? I don’t know, but the date could not be more appropriate: the first use of atomic weapons against humans became forever a sort of Satanic Transfiguration, with vast numbers of lives vaporized in the destructive blazing created light, a mockery of the life-giving uncreated Light that shone forth on the holy mountain.
I think, too, of the moral reasoning that went into the decision to bomb Hiroshima. It was nothing new; both sides had been waging war against civilians for a long while, all because they had adopted the principles of consequentialism, the idea that an act is measured by its effects for good or ill.
Such thinking comes natural to the natural man. To the spiritual man, though, this is an error that opens the door for every horror. One must begin with the objective order: there are some acts that are intrinsically evil, no matter what the circumstances. Christians can argue about the precise meaning of the commandment forbidding killing, but at the very least everyone should agree that if it means anything it means that it is always wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Of course, Americans, like everyone else, act like this is self-evident when they are the victims. After 9/11 Osama bin Ladin was called evil precisely because he violated this principle. However, when the situation is reversed, and it is Americans doing the killing, everything changes. We are justified because we had a good end in sight. Never mind that bin Ladin also considered his end- a godly world order- a good one. He even cited Hiroshima in justifying his own act. In the mind of bin Ladin, he and Harry Truman were morally equivalent. I agree, but note that bin Ladin killed a small fraction of those done in by Truman.
I am in Michigan this week, and by chance attended the Roman Mass at St Matthew’s in downtown Flint this morning. The priest, an elderly Augustinian friar, instead of commenting on the Gospel, offered some thoughts on the atomic bombings of Japan. He had been a missionary in Nagasaki a few years after the bomb was dropped there, in the most Catholic city in that nation.
He began by saying that he would not address the morality of the act, saying that it was “complex” and that there was a lot of disagreement about Truman’s decision. Instead he went on the tell heartbreaking stories of suffering among the Catholics he knew in Nagasaki.
True, he ended with a call for disarmament, but that a man who personally knew innocent Catholics who were victims of atomic weaponry could not say that this act- the deliberate killing of tens of thousands of civilians- was simply wrong made it clear in a new way to me just how deep the infection of consequentialism runs in American Catholics, who of all people should know better.
Lord have mercy.