What do you know about Damascus, Arkansas? I had never heard of the place until I watched an episode of The American Experience on PBS last week. “Command and Control” detailed events that took place near Damascus in September 1980. I was a few weeks shy of twelve years old at the time and, while I was aware of some of the major news stories of the day, I have no recollection of the crisis detailed in this documentary. Little did I know that an accident at a Titan II missile silo a mere 325 miles from my house in Herrin, Illinois, nearly changed all of our lives forever.
On the evening of September 18, 1980, a 21-year-old member of an Air Force Propellant Transfer System team, performing maintenance on a Titan II missile topped with a nine-megaton nuclear warhead, used the wrong wrench to try to remove a bolt. He dropped the socket, which fell seven stories and ricocheted into one of the missile’s fuel tanks, puncturing it. The fuel streamed out, forming a toxic cloud in the silo. It was only a matter of time before the tanks ruptured, releasing oxidizer, which would combine with the fuel vapors to create a catastrophic explosion.
To make a long story short—to see the long story, watch the film on PBS.org—around 1:30 in the morning, the missile exploded, killing one person and injuring several others. But that was just the beginning of what I found to be an unsettling, often infuriating story.
The most unsettling part of it was the degree of secrecy and misinformation surrounding not only the missile explosion but also the program itself. For one thing, no one who lived in the environs of the silo knew that the Titan II carried a nuclear warhead. They understood it was a possibility, of course, but no civilians knew for sure. Even after the accident, the Air Force refused to deny or confirm that there were nukes involved. That phrase, “We can neither deny nor confirm,” was their stock answer, and got repeated to journalists, Senate staffers, even Vice President Mondale.
Besides their refusal to let anyone know about the existence of that particular warhead, the Air Force routinely gave false or misleading statistics regarding the safety of the nuclear weapons program in general. They assured the public that fail-safe devices would prevent any accidental detonations, but experts interviewed for the documentary describe how easy it would be for those devices and procedures to fail, which would leave none of us safe. Furthermore, the Defense Department still claims that the US has had only (only!) thirty-two “broken arrows,” meaning serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that could have endangered the public, when in fact a Department of Energy report declassified a few years ago documents more than a thousand such accidents.
Some, I am sure, would defend this kind of secrecy as a matter of protecting national security, and excuse the misinformation as a matter of expediency to prevent panic. But I would argue that the people who live in communities where these weapons are maintained (and there are a bunch of them still out there) have a right to know that Armageddon may be located just a couple miles outside of town.
The bitterly ironic thing about this situation is that a number of the current and former military personnel interviewed for the film indicated that because of the Soviet threat they were prepared to launch utter devastation and end millions of lives if they had been ordered to do so. It was 1980, after all, and Cold War dogma demanded that we defend our American way of life from the godless totalitarian Commies. And among the reasons we were given for why the Soviets were so bad, as I remember clearly from my childhood, were that they controlled the press and lied to their people. We always got a smug chuckle out of the fact that the state newspaper was named Pravda, which means “Truth.” Dirty dogs! Hypocrites! Let’s all be thankful that we live in the land of the free.
In the thirty-six-plus years since the Damascus explosion, we have been deceived, double-crossed, and lied to by our leaders again and again. The Iran-Contra scandal; denials and cover-ups surrounding Gulf War Syndrome; Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes and perjuries; the faulty evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; waterboarding and data mining; Barack Obama’s drone program and “kill list”; the assurances to the citizens of Flint, Michigan, that the water was safe to drink; and now accusations that Donald Trump’s campaign may have colluded with Russia to win the presidential election are just a few of the ways our leaders have stretched the definition of the truth to its breaking point.
As people of faith, we are commanded to “speak the truth in love” and not to “bear false witness.” But as citizens, we also have a responsibility to demand that our leaders also tell the truth, and to hold them accountable when they do not. We may be entering particularly choppy waters with the new administration, but we have seen enough to know that neither party has a monopoly on truth or truthfulness. As Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thess 5:21, NIV). We must be vigilant if we do not want to pay the consequences of letting ourselves be lied to.
At the close of his final press conference this week, President Obama lauded the members of the free press gathered before him, and urged them to keep up their good work by holding the new administration and all our country's leaders accountable, even in the face of resistance and intimidation. In a larger sense, even those of us who are not journalists have this same responsibility. We need to know the truth, as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and continues to unfold through the work of the Holy Spirit, and we need to speak that truth—in love, for certain, but also in forthrightness and tenacity.
Who knows what consequences may follow if we fail in this trust? As the people of Damascus found out long after the fact, the results of letting our leaders lie to us could turn out to be deadly.