“Extend my affirmative case: Nuclear war causes mass extinction” became ingrained into my head as I repeated this motto at the beginning of every rebuttal speech. As a Lincoln Douglas debater, I spent over five months researching nuclear policies of nine states and understanding the intricate geopolitical tensions to argue whether states ought to eliminate nuclear arsenals.
However, I became numb to the reality of nuclear war really fast. Hearing high schoolers at 7:45 am talking 350 wpm (a really fast speed that we call spreading) claiming the entire world has a doomsday clock does that to you. With each tournament I had to argue for and against nuclear weapons, I became distanced from the harsh material realities they could actually have.
This changed in the last round of my debate season at the Tournament of Champions when a Japanese sophomore argued that the West has erased the memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He passionately explained how Japan continues to tend the horrors of nuclear weapons, but Americans distanced themselves from the violence they caused. This was the first time in five months someone had used a concrete example of lived realities. Most of us just found the easiest scenario to win: “a risk of extinction clearly outweighs any other impact.”
After this round, I did not wish to feed into the “death culture” of debate where detaching from tragedies to “rationally” argue was the path to success. In an effort to counteract this, I applied to be one of 10 US delegates for the International Student Conference on Global Affairs to discuss US-Russian nuclear disarmament. While my US team members (me included) made powerpoints about the imminent threat of nuclear war, Russian delegates made documentaries about generous US-Russian relations, when our two countries helped each other. Why were they presenting the histories of our two countries in such good light? Where were the presentations on the likelihood of death and destruction? Their documentary showed me the real, humane side of war: people do not want it. It was shocking to hear this because in debate we had to find fear mongering articles to persuade others that war would happen in order to win the round.
As our day progressed, I led the discussion on disposing nuclear waste by explaining the newly discovered biochemical process to convert nuclear waste into fuel. Pavel Palazchenko, President Gorbachev’s assistant, was intrigued and asked me how I thought this would work in the real world. I proposed incorporating this conversion method into nuclear energy programs and provided a written resolution for how this could be implemented. I also emphasized the need for transparency with citizens as nuclear discussions are currently highly secretive. So, I detailed the formation of a civilian corp to collaborate with scientists, youth, and regional leaders to unite the call for disarmament.
The 10 US and 10 Russian students at this conference discussed our proposals and we came to an understanding about the type of nuclear policymakers we wish to be in the future: caring, competent, and cooperative.
Since my meeting with the Russian commanders, I have drafted educational resources about nuclear war, wrote for the conference’s academic forum, contacted scientists involved in nuclear waste conversion for an internship, and joined the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Youth Group.
I hope that my story of distancing away from the violence of nuclear war reaches people who have also become numb to the horrors of the 21st century and inspires them to get involved in new activities to revive the passion for why they joined nuclear advocacy.