Grace Mojtabai

Learning to Live with the Bomb

VTR Date: July 19, 1986

Guest: Mojtabai, Grace


VTR: 7/19/86

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today I’d like to share with you a rather extraordinary book I’ve just read, Houghton-Mifflin’s BLESSED ASSURANCE AAT HOME WITH THE BOMB IN AMARILLO TEXAS. I’d venture, of course, that as the home of Pantex, the final assembly plant for all of this nation’s nuclear weapons, Amarillo has got to be an interesting place. But perhaps not all that interesting even with its widespread Fundamentalist sense of blessed assurance that the end is near, but that those who have chosen what they consider the ways of the Lord will believe that they are the chosen of God would be raptured, saved, lifted off the face of the earth out of this life when all others are destroyed in an apocalypse more and more likely to be nuclear. Even as widespread as they are in this often desolate, wind and dust-swept, Texas panhandle country, these thoughts aren’t what makes Amarillo so interesting to me. Fundamentalism, Armaggedon, the Second Coming, after all aren’t new thoughts to America. What is, however, is the possibility that this end-time thinking is a function not of historic American extremism, but rather of the nature of our own times, of a contemporary life situation pervaded by a more and more widely experienced sense of helplessness and powerlessness in proximity to ultimate power. The final, all-encompassing, inescapable, destructiveness of modern technology, nuclear weapons of course. But equally, perhaps, other aggregations of potentially uncontrollable man-made power over life and death. Anyway, that apocalyptic thinking surfaced again and again for this enthralled reader of BLESSED ASSURANCE AAT HOME WITH THE BOMB IN AMARILLO TEXAS. And so I’ve invited its author, A. G. Mojtabai, to join me on THE OPEN MIND first off asking if she sees Amarillo’s end-time thinking, as she calls it, as a metaphor for modern American thinking. Is that the case?

MOJTABAI: Well, I’d hesitate to press modern American thinking into a single metaphor. I think there’s an extraordinarily good fit between apocalyptic end-time thinking and the nuclear situation in which we find ourselves, the nuclear race.

HEFFNER: Something new? Something new in our lives?

MOJTABAI: Well, the race is…the nuclear overkill capacity is new. The apocalypticism has been there to surface again and again throughout American history and world history. It’s just that we now have the capacity to bring on an end-time, to destroy civilization, or even if you give credence to the possibility of a nuclear winter, to destroy the ecosystem of the earth. That’s what’s new. Before this, apocalypticism read natural portents, natural disasters, into its script. Now we have man-made disasters which…

HEFFNER: You know as I read your fascinating book, and it is fascinating, it’s …but people say it’s frightening, maybe it is. I had to wonder, though, what these people were like before the bomb. And I wonder what your answer to that is?

MOJTABAI: Well, I think, as I say, I don’t think that end-time thinking or apocalypticism was in any way caused by the presence of the bomb. I think there is a good fit now. So before this you read, you read volcanic destruction, famine, plague into the apocalyptic script. But these were truly beyond our control. Now you read the nuclear arms race into the script. And somehow to give over control here, it seems to me, is very dangerous and very frightening.

HEFFNER: Would you expect this kind of thinking, would you expect end-time thinking in Amarillo, but not elsewhere?

MOJTABAI: No, no. I know that it exists elsewhere. I know that Hal Lindsey’s THE LATE, GREAT PLANET EARTH was the largest best seller of the 1970’s. And that has a script in it, a theological timetable, an agenda, which involves nuclear holocaust to precede the Second Coming of Christ.

HEFFNER: But how widespread is this sense, in your estimation, throughout this country? Somewhere in your book you said, and let’s see I made a note, I think it was here you say, “for it is my conviction that in some sense every American is host and hostage to Pantex”, meaning to nuclear weapons. You think that’s true?

MOJTABAI: I think it is true. I think we are, yes. I think we are host in the sense that each of us with our taxes funds the nuclear weapons complex for which Pantex serves as a terminus. We are hostage to Pantex in the sense that given this nuclear weapons complex we are all, we are all targeted in some way.

HEFFNER: No, but that’s a political or in some ways an economic analysis, and yours is a psychological analysis. Do you think on the level of the way we think that we are hostage throughout the rest of the country to Pantex?

MOJTABAI: Yes. I think there’s…and perhaps I, perhaps I’m reading outward from my own case. I think there is a widespread despair, unadmitted, unacknowledged despair of the future. And I think, I recall a survey made at Harvard in which students who were preparing for futures and diligently preparing for futures admitted, many of them, and I’ve forgotten what the percentage was, but a striking percentage anticipated nuclear warfare in their lifetime and did not think that they would survive. Now how do you go about planning your future? Studying, going through all the paces and yet in the back of your mind not being certain or feeling rather certain that there is no future? I think there’s a lot of that. And it may not surface explicitly as it does with certain Fundamentalist end-timers. But I think it lurks in a muffled form, a loose and muffled form in much of American thinking today.

HEFFNER: You commented in BLESSED ASSURANCE about, I think you call it, a lack of a sense of community. An awareness that I may be…(inaudible)…to rapture is mine, I will be saved, but the devil take the hindmost. You think that aspect of what you see in Amarillo is what one can see without the apocalyptic thinking, without the expression of apocalyptic thinking in the rest of the country?

MOJTABAI: I think there’s a lot of individualism and a lot of special interest thinking in this country, and I think even a book such as HABITS OF THE HEART zeroed in on this. We’re aware of a certain dissonance that we have…we have a language of community, but we don’t know quite how to use it or how it’s…where it’s grounded in many of us. Certain people who come up through Biblical traditions do know where it’s coming from, but there’s a contemporary, secular society that refers to a long-term commitment and wide commitments and yet doesn’t know where this language is grounded.

HEFFNER: but the, this dissonance, is it, is it new in your estimation? Is it a function let’s say of the bomb, of learning to live with the bomb?

MOJTABAI: Oh, I don’t, I don’t make that claim, and I’m …I don’t think I’m prepared to make that claim. I just think it’s interesting and in the case of Amarillo the fact that there’s a lot of island thinking and a lot of special interest thinking makes it possible not to focus on the global implications of a place like Pantex, not to focus on a global sense of community. It’s always…it’s very often this parish, this community, or this parish, or this industry, or this company. So…

HEFFNER: Your description of the visit to Pantex is an interesting one. That’s a, that’s a cop-out word. The sense of interest, the sense of concern, self-concern, self-interest that is so pervasive there. Again the lack of sense of community. How pervasive is that in Amarillo? Where you’re on the edge. You yourself are there. You live there now.


HEFFNER: So you’re right on the edge. And I wonder how that impacts upon you.

MOJTABAI: Well, I find that there is a sense of community within…within groups. That is, within the First Baptist Church there’s a very strong sense of community. And there’s an outreach movement. So there’s a…within the established membership people are very much together and concerned with one another. And then there is a movement to bring new people in so there’s that sense of community. And there is a sense that…even of global community, insofar as let us bring in all the nations of the world, all the people of the nations of the world, into our faith, into our denomination if not into our particular church. But that to my mind is narrow. It’s a narrow sense of community because to reach out along an ideological axis or to reach out for your denomination is not quite, not quite the reaching out that I think is necessary in this day and age. There is…at Pantex itself there is a strong sense within Pantex a strong sense of community. The workers carpool. They have blood drives. They…Pantex itself, was the single largest contributor, corporate contributor, to United Way. They have a fund into which employees contribute what they would have spent for Christmas cards to giving gifts for the poor and needy and isolated. There is that sense of community. Locally there is a sense of community, but there’s no sense of global community. What sort of corporate citizen is Amarillo in the world, is Pantex in the world? It’s always what sort of corporate citizen is it in Amarillo. Well, if you restrict your sites to Amarillo, it’s a good corporate citizen. It’s a large contributor. Or even to what extends beyond Amarillo…I must say I read the plaques in the entrance hall. They contribute to the United Negro College Fund and so on. But there’s no sense beyond…

HEFFNER: You think it’s any different in any community in this country of 100 to 150 million people?

MOJTABAI: Well, I don’t have the data on that, but I rather suspect it isn’t much different. And I focused upon Amarillo as a way of looking at America, looking at America through Amarillo. I suspect that there is a great deal of similarity elsewhere.

HEFFNER: Let me understand. You say you suspect that there is a great deal of similarity elsewhere. Does that mean that what you discovered in Amarillo is less a function of living there next to the final assemblage of nuclear weapons, than of living in contemporary America?

MOJTABAI: Well, let’s put it this way. I think that given the fact that the final assembly plant is there and the fact that this kind of thinking exists, this kind of island thinking, special interest thinking, and the Fundamentalist thinking which may not exist throughout the country, I mean there is…it’s intense along the Bible belt, and Amarillo is part of the Bible belt, and it exists to some extent throughout the country but may not be as intense, as explicit there. This gave me a focus that was…there was some typical aspects of life there, some aspects of life I felt were typical, and probably nationally, and some aspects were specific to Amarillo.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, the question as one reads the book is, wondering how does one learn to live with the bomb? To live near, to live in A) a target area or B) a target area and the assemblage place for sending nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world in an unfriendly fashion. How do you do it?

MOJTABAI: One forgets. And I must say…

HEFFNER: Forgets?

MOJTABAI: Forgets. I must say the first time I saw Pantex and cows, well, it isn’t the first time that cows were grazing, but the first time I saw it and I saw agriculture land around the plant is was very jarring to me, it was very dissonant. I had in mind a clear picture of what the corporate product was, and then I saw this rather pastoral scene. And when I went by Pantex the second time it was in springtime and cows were grazing and the winter wheat was coming up. That’s within the perimeter fence of the plant. The scene was utterly pastoral, and I again…great dissonance. It was very jarring. It was very disturbing to me. Now after three and one-half year I find that I can pass Pantex without…I’m aware, I’m aware of some dissonance and jarring, but it’s become more normal to me. It’s less…when I think about it in New York I am more jolted by it than living 17 miles away from it. One becomes habituated. And also for people growing up with it…the plant has been in existence since 1942. It’s been a nuclear weapons assembly since 1950. So that’s over 40 years of existence and over 30 years of nuclear weapons capacity. If you grow up with it and it’s out there, it’s scarcely a wrinkle on the landscape.

HEFFNER: But of course you didn’t grow up with it. You’re an outsider. You’re from New York. You’re one of those Northern liberals who’s come down there. That makes you even more of an outsider than someone who wasn’t normally involved with Fundamentalist thinking anyway. And what does that do to your own sense of yourself?

MOJTABAI: Now, let me understand the question. What is my…

HEFFNER: What is…

MOJTABAI: …being an outsider in Amarillo do to my own sense of self?

HEFFNER: Yeah. A non-end-think person.

MOJTABAI: A non-end-think person. Well, it gives me a clear sense of myself. I think…I guess it’s a hard question to answer. I guess artists are always to some extent outsiders and it’s not a new feeling. So I really can’t follow that question through.

HEFFNER: Let me turn to another point, though, and that is you make the point in BLESSED ASSURANCE that both out President and our Secretary of Defense have engaged in almost end-thoughts. They’ve talked about Armageddon. They’ve talked about the end of the world. What has been the relationship between public discussion in Amarillo and that phenomenon? Is there a realization that end-thinking is, finds a friend, two friends in high places in Washington?

MOJTABAI: Well, there certainly is, I think, with the moral majority leader in Amarillo who has close ties with Jerry Falwell who has in turn close ties with members of this administration. I don’t think…I haven’t heard anyone capitalize on Reagan’s statements that sound as if they were scripted, as a matter of fact, or Weinberger’s admission that he reads the book of Revelation closely and so on.

HEFFNER: What do you mean admission? Why do you say admission?

MOJTABAI: Well, what word would you have me use?

HEFFNER: Would he say admission? He would claim it.

MOJTABAI: He would claim it.

HEFFNER: He hasn’t snuck around.

MOJTABAI: No, he hasn’t snuck around.

HEFFNER: It’s not like he carried it in a brown paper bag.

MOJTABAI: No, he doesn’t, but I don’t think, for instance, Reagan has not followed through with more of the same. And Weinberger as far as I know has not followed through with more on the theme of end-time and the Book of Revelation. I think they are aware that this is politically a difficult, a ticklish item. And while they want the support of certain right-wing fundamentalist groups I don’t think they’re quite prepared for everything that goes with these views. At least they’re not prepared to publicly admit it. At least they have not followed through.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s possible to be an end-time think person, to be Fundamentalist in this way, to think in terms of Armageddon, to think in terms of an apocalypse, and yet not have a particular political orientation? Not have a particular attitude toward our role in international relations?

MOJTABAI: I suppose it is possible. I haven’t explored that, but as a matter of fact the end-timers who I’ve encountered have all believed that the one thing they can do is to bring people into the lifeboat of salvation before the tribulation starts so that they can, as many people as possible might be raptured. And in order to do this they maintain that we must have a free country, a country in which we are religiously free. And in order to preserve our religious freedom, we must have a vast armory of nuclear weapons. And normally as part of this script, too, there’s a Satanic role for the Russian government. So, where it might be possible, I haven’t in fact encountered it.

HEFFNER: Do you necessarily reject the notion that in order to survive we must be strong? Militarily?

MOJTABAI: I don’t reject the notion that in order to survive we must have some military…we must be militarily strong. The question is we have more than sufficiency to kill and kill again everyone on this earth. And the question is where is this arms race leading? And is it making us secure?

HEFFNER: but if we had one-half, one-tenth, one-hundreth of the arms that we have, would you think there would be less apocalyptic end-time thinking? Wouldn’t there still be the same reasons for that kind of thinking?

MOJTABAI: Well, there are the same reasons for that thinking. What I’m concerned with is this. As part of this script, part of this forecast for the future, nuclear weapons, the control of nuclear weapons is out of our hands somehow. And I find that very dangerous. I find that passivity and that fatalism very dangerous. Fundamentalists or people who subscribe to this end-time view would say, and have said that, well, it’s not pessimistic and it’s not…everything is in God’s hands. And well, my only counter to that is that God gave us the freedom, the freedom, and that we have to make our choices, and that it’s the fatalism and it’s the passivity that worries me. Now you say if we reduced our arms stockpile wouldn’t there be apocalyptic thinking. Yes there would, but there wouldn’t be the same. There wouldn’t be the same danger of continuing to stockpile, stockpile, continuing to build with sanction and with God’s imprimatur upon this race to destruction.

HEFFNER: but you know in a funny way you’ve already said it doesn’t make any difference anyway because we’re capable of destroying ourselves and everyone else over and over and over and over and over again. Shall we do it only once? Will that make any difference?

MOJTABAI: Well, I think…I don’t think we should have the capacity to do it, to do it even once.

HEFFNER: At all. Well, then we get back, then we do get down to basics that what you’re talking about is essentially a political and a moral observation. Let me ask, forget about end-time thinking or Fundamentalism or apocalyptic thinking. Do you think we’re going to work our way out of the power race? Out of the fact that we, our friends and our enemies, do have the power to destroy all of us again, and again, and again?

MOJTABAI: I devoutly hope so.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I know you hope so.


HEFFNER: But do you think so?

MOJTABAI: I don’t know. I don’t know. And that open possibility is something that at times terrifies me, at times energizes me. I don’t know. I think there’s a real open question. But one thing I have found out in the course of writing this book was I thought I was a despairing person. But when I listen to some of these forecasts of the future, I find there’s a great fund of hope that I didn’t know was there. This can’t be, this can’t be the script.

HEFFNER: You don’t want it to be, that’s for sure. And I don’t want it to be.

MOJTABAI: I don’t want it t be, yeah.

HEFFNER: But, when I press you, I don’t get an unequivocal…

MOJTABAI: No, you don’t, you don’t. As a matter of fact, I threw in the lap of the reader at the end of this book the question, will we survive?

HEFFNER: Indeed. And I wonder when you do that, are you, do you gain more in the direction of, you used the word energized before about, you said you’ve been energized by this. Are people energized that way or are they just, do they end up being as despairing, and maybe looking for the same sorts of things that the Fundamentalists do?

MOJTABAI: Are you, are you asking about, specifically about, the reaction to the book itself, what, what, what are…

HEFFNER: Not really. You know, what I’m really asking about is you and how you’ve come out of this. You say in your book, you offer no panacea solutions. One doesn’t look here for that, but I wonder how you do come out of it anyway?

MOJTABAI: How I do come out of it in terms of…

HEFFNER: …of your level of optimism. I want to know how close are you to the end-time people in your thinking at this point.

MOJTABAI: I think I had to work my way through it. I think I knew some of the urgencies to which the Fundamentalist end-timers were responding. And I respect them. And I had to work my way through it. I think I agree with Reverend Jones of the Second Baptist Church when he said our heads and our hands about run our hearts. I agree with Reverend Elms of the First Pentecostal Church when he said we live deliciously in a world of want. I do believe we’re faddists and we’re captive to the latest trends ad experts of the moment. I do believe we live in a critical time. I wouldn’t call it the end-time. I hope it’s not the end-time. But I believe that. And I do believe we’ve never solved the problem of violence. Cain and Able. So in a sense I worked through thinking that was not, it was foreign and yet it wasn’t utterly foreign to me.

HEFFNER: I’m glad that you’ve worked it through. And I want to thank you for joining me today.

MOJTABAI: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbury Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer, Incorporated; and THE NEW YORK TIMES Company Foundation.