If there’s one thing that should get everyone’s attention, it’s the end of the world.

BOOM!

Do we have your attention?

Maybe, maybe not. Last week, a huge setback occurred in the nuclear bomb arena. The United States — which leads the planet in nuclear technology the way the Atlanta Braves lead baseball in good pitching — rejected a treaty that outlaws exploding nuclear devices for testing purposes.

Let me repeat: We rejected it.

That’s the United States, a country that preaches peace and democracy, a country that claims to have nuclear weapons only to keep the bad guys from getting any wild ideas, a country that swore after dropping the bomb on Japan in World War II that it would do everything it could to see that such inhuman disaster never occurred again.

And we rejected the treaty.

Over politics.

And how many of us even noticed?

Battle over Clinton

Remember, we’re talking nuclear bombs here. End of the world. Bye-bye, humanity. And yet, a chance to freeze the nuclear race where it is and to outlaw any future underground nuclear explosions was shamefully ignored by both the politicians and the citizens of this country.

How? First, the politicians. The Democrats wanted this treaty ratified. They were frustrated by the holdup being orchestrated by the Republicans. They pushed for a vote because they felt the treaty was a good thing and there is an election year coming. Besides, ratification would be a star on President Bill Clinton’s record.

The Republicans, meanwhile, had their own selfish agendas. They hate Clinton so ferociously that they are willing to do anything to make him look bad, even revert to the isolationism of the ’20s and ’30s. Clinton wanted this treaty? Then they didn’t. Like kids in a schoolyard brawl, they swing so wildly they seem to have no recognition of what they’re knocking over.

And so, while offering limp defenses that this treaty would somehow limit the U.S. nuclear edge while other nations cheated (don’t you think the other nations say the same thing about us?) the Republican-led Senate voted it down, 51-48. So there. They showed the Democrats. They showed Clinton. Push us, will you? Take that.

“It has long been a point of honor that there are matters that rise above the riffraff of politics,” Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia wrote in the New York Times. “But the Senate’s handling of the treaty proves that anything, even an arms control treaty of international consequences, can now be cannon fodder in a partisan war. Partisanship has completely eclipsed statesmanship.”

You can say that again. Political infighting paralyzed the presidency during this year’s impeachment trial. Now the same thing has all but killed a treaty that was decades in the making. And it sends a message to the world: The last superpower refuses to agree to any restrictions — which, of course, will lead other nations to say, “Why should we?”

Around the globe, there was anger and distress. Germany’s defense minister called the decision “absolutely wrong.” France’s president lamented it as “a setback to …disarmament.” China expressed “profound regret.”

And in America? We watched TV.

Battle for attention

Be honest. How much time did you spend talking about this vote at the dinner table? How much of the local news was devoted to the issue?

Hardly any. We have our routines, our cell phones, our cable TV. You want to know how politicians can get away with irresponsible behavior? It’s because they know, deep down, that most Americans aren’t even paying attention. When time comes to vote in an election, they won’t recall who supported the nuclear test ban treaty or who didn’t. They’ll cast their vote based on sound bites, image, sexual history.

The future of the world will barely enter into it.

It’s hard to say which is more to blame in this whole thing, the politicians or the voters, the system or the people practicing it. But let’s remember that we live in a world where nuclear horror has reared its ugly head already.

And if those who ignore history are really doomed to repeat it, then what does that suggest for people too busy with their own petty issues to hear the biggest boom of all?

Hello? Anybody out there?

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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