The hydrogen bomb that very nearly detonated on American soil.
Thanks to a steep learning curve in the design and handling of nuclear weapons, a continuing emphasis on readiness before safety, and a history of mismanagement, the United States military has had a frightening number of near-misses. (Click on the box below for our companion story about the disgruntled young men who babysit our land-based missiles.) Here's an abridged timeline of scandals and close calls gleaned from media reports, military sources, and from Eric Schlosser's must-read book, Command and Control, which chronicles in terrifying detail just how close we've come to the abyss.
1956: A B-47 bomber veers off a runway and rips apart a storage igloo containing Mark 6 atomic bombs before exploding.
January 1958: On a runway in Morocco, a B-47's tires blow out, starting a fire that melts the plane—and its Mark 36 hydrogen bomb—into an 8,000-pound hunk of radioactive slag.
March 1958: While flying over Mars Bluff, South Carolina, the pilot of a B-47 accidentally drops a Mark 6 bomb into a family's backyard. Although the bomb is lacking its nuclear core, its high explosives wreck the home, injure six family members, and leave behind a crater 35 feet deep.
The Mark 6 Wikimedia
November 1958: A B-47 carrying a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb crashes near Abilene, Texas. The bomb's conventional explosives detonate without triggering a nuclear blast.
1958: Warheads of all Mark 28 bombs are replaced after tests determine that an accident could trigger a nuclear detonation.
1959: A B-52 bomber collides with a refueling tanker and breaks apart over Kentucky. Two nuclear cores are found resting on a pile of broken high explosives.
1960: Weapons experts visiting a NATO base witness German fighter jets loaded with atomic bombs being guarded by a lone American soldier carrying a bolt-action rifle.
1961: Four days after President John F. Kennedy takes office, a B-52 spins out near Goldsboro, North Carolina, releasing a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb that responds as if deliberately dropped. A cockpit ready/safe switch that proved unreliable in other incidents is the only thing preventing a massive nuclear detonation. A second Mark 39 plummets to the ground unarmed, and portions of the bomb penetrate deep into the swampy soil (see photo); its uranium core is never recovered.
Workers recover a portion of a second bomb dropped over North Carolina. US Airforce/Wikimedia
1965: A welder working in a Titan II silo in Arkansas starts a fire that asphyxiates 53 people.
1966: A B-52 carrying four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs crashes into a refueling tanker and breaks apart above Palomares, Spain. Two bombs partially detonate, releasing radiation over the town and contaminating nearly 4,000 truckloads of crops.
One of the recovered Palomares bombs. US Navy/Wikimedia
1968: A B-52 flying over Greenland crashes, scattering radioactive parts across three square miles.
1969: Twenty crewmembers of a Polaris nuclear sub are caught using drugs. A former crewmember tells a reporter that hashish was often smoked when at sea.
1970: The head of Sandia National Laboratory's nuclear safety department briefs the Atomic Energy Commission on how supposedly "failsafe" nukes can detonate under extreme heat and stress. The AEC takes no action.
Sandia National Laboratories
1974: In a letter to a top AEC official, a Sandia VP warns that many nukes could accidentally detonate during a fire or crash. The AEC takes no action.
1977: General William E. Odom, a national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, attends a briefing on the SIOP, the nation's nuclear war plan, and comes away stunned: "At times I simply could not believe what I was being shown and told," Odom later notes. "It was just a huge mechanical war plan aimed at creating maximum damage without regard to the political context…And the president would be left with two or three meaningless choices that he might have to make within 10 minutes after he was awakened after a deep sleep some night."
1979: A technician mistakenly uploads a highly realistic war games simulation to NORAD's computers, which promptly signal a massive Soviet nuclear launch. Officials scramble the bombers and prepare for World War III. Only after the phantom missiles fail to materialize do they realize it's a false alarm.
June 1980: President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is awakened by General Odom around 2:30 a.m. NORAD'S computers have detected the launch of 220 missiles from Soviet subs toward the homeland. Brzezinski prepares forces for a massive nuclear retaliation. Odom calls back to report the launch of 2,200 missiles from Soviet ground sites. As before, it turns out to be a false alarm, caused this time by a flawed computer chip, which is later replaced at a cost of 46 cents.
September 1980: A socket dropped by a maintenance worker punctures a Titan II missile in Arkansas. Its highly toxic fuel explodes, killing one person, injuring 21, and hurling the warhead 200 yards into a roadside ditch. That same month, a safety expert at the Sandia lab demonstrates to the Air Force inspector general how a Mark 28 nuclear bomb could detonate in a plane crash. The IG commissions a study.
A Titan II US Department of Defense/Wikimedia
1984: During a sound check prior to his national radio address, President Ronald Reagan improvises:"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." When news of the gag leaks, the world is not amused.
1990: Advances in computing bring about "a realization that unintended nuclear detonations present a greater risk than previously estimated," notes a House Armed Services Committee report.
1995: The launch of a small Norwegian weather rocket convinces the Kremlin it is under nuclear attack by the United States. President Boris Yeltsin prepares to retaliate before the warning is declared a false alarm.
Boris Yeltsin with then-President Clinton. Stephan Savoia/AP
2003: Half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons fail their safety inspections, despite a three-day advance warning.
2006: Nose cone fuse assemblies of four Minuteman III missiles are accidentally shipped from Utah to Taiwan. The boxes sat for nearly two years before the Air Force, prompted by Taiwanese officials, finally acknowledged its error.
2007: Six nuclear missiles go missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loads them onto a plane and flies them across the country.
May 2008: A fire in a Minuteman III silo in Wyoming melts part of a shotgun and damages an electrical cable connected to the missile—but it isn't detected by a smoke alarm.
October 2008: The Air Force launches a program to "sustain, modernize, and recapitalize its nuclear capability." The reform effort, consisting of a strict new inspection regime, was "as much punishment as it was rigor," Lt. General Kowalksi, commander of the Air Force's nuclear weapons, admits later.
2009: A missileer is placed on duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base without being certified to handle emergency war orders.
February 2010: A nuclear munitions crew at Kirtland Air Force Base is decertified for failing safety inspections.
October 2010: A computer failure knocks 50 Minuteman III missiles offline for more than an hour, preventing launch crews from communicating with the weapons systems.
2011: The Defense Science Board reports that the Air Force's inspection reforms are backfiring, "creating a climate of distrust."
July 2012: An 84-year-old nun named Sister Megan Rice and two fellow activists break into a weapons-grade uranium facility, where they remain undetected for more than an hour. The security breach, noted the DOE's Inspector General, exposed "troubling displays of ineptitude."
Sister Megan Rice Facebook
September 2012: A security alarm goes off at a Warren launch facility. Security forces fail to respond in a timely fashion.
December 2012: A missileer is mistakenly placed on launch duty at Malmstrom, even though he'd been decertified for failing safety inspections.
January 2013: The Defense Science Board warns that the nuclear command-and-control system's ability to withstand a major hacking attack has never been fully vetted.
April 2013: Nineteen missileers at Minot are deemed unfit for command and forced to surrender their launch authority due to performance and attitude problems.
May 2013: A deputy crew commander falls asleep in a launch capsule with the blast door open, a security violation. It's the second such incident at a missile site within a year.
July 2013: "The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid," Lt. General James Kowalski says at a Washington, DC, defense forum.
Lt. General James Kowalski US Air Force
August 2013: The missile wing at Malmstrom fails a safety and security inspection. The security officer in charge is relieved of duty. That same month, Air Force Brass investigates two launch officers it suspects of using ecstasy and speed. A search of their phones leads to evidence of cheating by numerous launch control officers on their proficiency tests.
September 2013: Navy Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the No. 2 in charge of nuclear forces, is suspended after being caught with counterfeit poker chips.
September 2013: Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser publishes Command and Control, a hair-raising exposé of the Air Force's nuclear misadventures.
October 2013: Maj. General Michael Carey is removed as commander of the ICBM program after an official trip to Russia, where he engaged in "inappropriate behavior," including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts, and associating with "suspect" women.
Maj. General Michael Carey US Air Force
November 2013: A RAND report reveals that missileers are suffering from "burnout" and have high rates of spousal abuse and courts martial.
January 2014: More than half of Malmstrom's 183 missileers are implicated in the cheating scandal.
February 2014: Sister Megan Rice, the elderly nun who broke into the nuclear weapons complex, is sentenced to 35 months in prison. Her two accomplices get 62 months.
March 2014: Nine launch officers are stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom's missile wing, resigns. The Air Force announces changes to its proficiency tests intended to discourage cheating and improve morale.
November 2014: The Air Force fires two high-level commanders in the Minuteman program and disciplines a third for various leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates.
An estimated 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during Tuesday's midterm elections—the lowest voter turnout since 1942. It wasn't that much of an anomaly, however: For decades, voter turnout in non-presidential election years has hovered far below what it was in the mid-19th century, when it peaked at around 70 percent. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th out of 169 countries for average voter turnout.
Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed a way to reverse this trend: Make election day a national holiday. "Election day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote," Sanders said in a press release announcing the Democracy Day Act. "While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy."
With marijuana now legal in four states and the District of Columbia, the movement to end the prohibition of pot continues to gain steam. Another five states are expected to introduce ballot measures to legalize recreational pot in 2016, including California, Massachusetts, and Nevada. And by the end of the following year, pot activists expect five more states will vote on legalization bills in their state legislatures. But that's not all: six other states are looking at creating or expanding medical-marijuana programs, or are vastly scaling back penalties for small-time possession. With a slew of polls now showing that most Americans think pot should be taxed and regulated like alcohol, it's probably only a matter of time before legalization sweeps the nation.
Oregon and Alaska are renowned for their pot-smoking libertarians, hippies, and hipsters, but they're no match for the blazer-and-khaki-clad stoners in the nation's capital. That's right. DC's marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 71, which was predicted to sail through by a 2-1 margin, has officially passed by an even larger margin. Okay, not officially passed, but, you know, the big media guys called it and…and…what was I writing about again?
"Blacks make up about half of the district's population, but accounted for 90 percent of its arrests for drug possession last year."
If the DC vote caught you by surprise, then consider our capital's long, intimate relationship with the cannabis plant. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. George Washington urged his gardener to "make the most" of Indian hemp seed, which, translated into modern English, obviously means cooking it into hash oil and smoking dabs from an oil rig. (If you don't know what I'm talking about then you clearly don't live in DC.) The point is, DC was cool before Portland even fucking existed.
When I was in college in the late 1990s, I visited DC, where I bought some low-grade pot from some young black dude on the street. Such purchases happen all the time in DC, and when things go wrong, it's usually the young dealer, not the stoned college kid, who winds up in jail. The disparities are well known within the District's African American community: Blacks make up about half of the DC population but accounted for 90 percent of its arrests for drug possession, according to a study last year. And while, according to the Washington Post, African Americans in the District once tended to oppose legalization for fear it could lead to more young blacks getting addicted, they now support it as the same rate as whites do.
The most obvious reason that DC suits could get legal pot is that there's no rural DC—unless you count the cherry trees around the Washington Monument, which I don't. However, this map shows the vast swath of Oregon hinterlands that backed Mitt Romney in 2012. That tiny blue sliver resembling the Gaza Strip is Portland.
Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland has already pledged to "blunt" legal pot in DC.
But pro-pot voters in DC still face an uphill battle. While Washington is the most liberal place in America after San Francisco, (so says The Economist), it is also home to Congress, a slightly less progressive institution, which happens to control the District's purse strings and has 30 days to review and nullify any new DC law. Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, pictured above (he's the guy without the tea), has pledged to "blunt" the DC pot rule, as Politico aptly put it. Getting the rest of Congress to follow suit might get a lot easier if, as some pro-pot campaigners fear, thousands of ecstatic stoners spark up on the streets tonight.
These legalization measures weren't the only marijuana initiatives on the ballot Tuesday. Florida was supposed to be the first state in the South to legalize medical marijuana, but support for the measure took a nosedive, and it has lost by a fairly big margin. (Slate's Michael Ames blames "dysfunctional partisanship.") There are also local measures on the ballot in several states. And for what it's worth, a medical-marijuana referendum passed today by a 12-point margin in Guam, which is certain to give a boost to this song:
By now you're probably heard of #Gamergate, the internet lynch mob masquerading as a movement for ethics in video game journalism. Though #Gamergaters, as they're known, have repeatedly targeted their critics with rape and death threats, drawing rebukes from the broader gaming community, surprisingly few observers have asked whether violent video games themselves may have triggered this sort of abhorrent behavior.
Debate about video games and violence has, of course, been around almost as long as video games have. In 1976, the now-defunct game company Exidy introduced Death Race, a driving game based around mowing down what appeared to be pedestrians. "I'm sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians," the behavioral psychologist Gerald Driessen told the New York Times. "But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory."
Driessen's fears seem almost quaint these days. Traffic fatalities and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, despite the advent of drastically more realistic and morally depraved games such as Grand Theft Auto. "Facts, common sense, and numerous studies all debunk the myth that there is a link between video games and violence," the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents the $65 billion video game industry, writes on its web page. "In fact, numerous authorities, including the US Supreme Court, US Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior."
Yet the ESA's defense of violent games masks a deeper reality: An emerging body of scientific research shows that the games may not be as harmless as many people think.
"Just because you don't necessarily go out and stab someone" after playing a violent game "doesn't mean you won't have a more adversarial mindset," says Susan Greenfield, an Oxford-trained neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. "Your thermostat will change so that you will be more easily angered, more hostile than polite. And that, in fact, is what we're seeing with this #Gamergate thing."
Many studies, in fact, show a strong connection between gaming and the types of behaviors exhibited by the #Gamergate mob. A 2010 meta-analysis of 136 papers detailing 381 tests involving 130,296 research participants found that violent gameplay led to a significant desensitization to violence, increases in aggression, and decreases in empathy. "Concerning public policy, we believe the debates can and should finally move beyond the general question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior," the authors wrote. "The scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be 'yes.'"
But this meta-analysis hasn't laid the debate to rest. As Erik Kain pointed out in Mother Jones last year, "another metastudy showed that most studies of violent video games over the years suffered from publication biases that tilted the results towards foregone correlative conclusions."
The aggressive behavior resulting from gaming isn't just theoretical; it can spill out into the real world. For example, a study of long-term effects in American and Japanese schoolchildren showed that as little as three months of intense gaming increased their frequency of violent behavior such as punching or kicking or getting into fights. Several studies have involved telling experimental subjects competing in a nonviolent video game that they could administer a sonic blast through their opponents' headphones, but warned that it would be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Those most willing to administer the (nonexistent) sound blasts, as it turned out, had recently played violent games.
Other evidence suggests that people who play violent video games are less likely than others to act as Good Samaritans. Participants in an Iowa State University study played either a violent or nonviolent video game before a fake fight was staged outside the laboratory. Players of the violent game were less likely than other participants to report hearing the fight, judged the fight as less serious, and took longer to help the injured party.
In a 2012 study whose outcome relates more directly to #Gamergate, French college students played either a violent game or a nonviolent game before reading ambiguous story plots about potential interpersonal conflicts. The researchers then had them list what they thought the main characters would do, say, or feel as the story continued. The players of the violent games expected more aggressive responses from the characters in the story—a result that mirrors how the gaming community, but hardly anyone else, has consistently imputed evil motives to video game journalists and female game developers when reading about developments in the emerging "scandal."
Taken together, these studies may help explain why some participants in #Gamergate felt justified in sending rape and death threats to their critics while other gamers, instead of calling them out, looked the other way.
In her book, which is not without its critics, Greenfield lays out a neurological explanation for the video game/violence connection. While the well-known plasticity of the human brain allows it to adapt to a wide range of environments, Greenfield argues that it also exposes us to dangerous changes in brain chemistry when we immerse ourselves in violent video games for extended periods:
Investigators recorded the brain activity of experienced gamers, who normally played an average of fourteen hours per week, while they played a first-person shooter game…Results showed that areas of the brain linked with emotion and empathy (the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) were less active during violent video gaming. The authors suggest that these areas must be suppressed during violent video gaming, just as they would be in real life, in order to act violently without hesitation.
What's more, the thrill that we experience while playing video games results from a release of dopamine, the same brain stimulant that accounts for the addictive appeal of drugs, gambling, and porn.
When dopamine accesses the prefrontal cortex, it inhibits the activity of the neurons there, and so recapitulates in some ways the immature brain state of the child, or indeed of the reckless gambler, schizophrenic or the food junkie. Just as children are highly emotional and excitable, adults in this condition are also more reactive to sensations rather than calmly proactive.
"How might his apply to video games?" Greenfield goes on to ask. "You can afford to be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the three-dimensional world. The consequence-free nature of video gaming is a basic part of its ethos."
And, so it seems, of the ethos of #Gamergate. Harassing and threatening people might seem like fun to some people—until, at least, somebody dies in the real world.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 60 percent of videogames are violent. It should have stated that more than half of top-selling video games are violent. The sentence has since been fixed.