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January 4th

January 4, 1991

My first exposure to the glitz our low rent, no tell motel has failed dismally to provide is when I walk into the Sahara to attend the conference.

sahara-hotel

It may be bigger and shinier than our motel, but in the casino the gamblers’ eyes are just as glazed and the cocktail waitresses’ outfits are just as skimpy.

In the morning I attend a workshop on the environmental impact of nuclear testing, with speakers addressing the problems in Nevada (where the Brits and the Yanks test), in the Arctic region of the Soviet Union and in French Polynesia. Little is known about the Chinese test sites and no one from China is coming forward to offer any information. Scientific evidence put forward proves that earthquake patterns in the post-testing latter half of this century have altered dramatically. There’s also a chilling suggestion that, like a junkie, the planet may now be addicted to testing. By the time I walk out of the workshop I’m feeling like Peter Finch in Network. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

During the lunch break, hundreds of people march from the Sahara to the Department of Energy building. Why? Well, for a start, to highlight the fact that the vast majority of the DoE’s multi-billion dollar budget – which could be spent on researching and developing renewable energy sources – is currently covering the cost of nuclear testing. A quarter-mile-long procession of demonstrators arrives at and encircles the department’s Nevada headquarters, proclaiming nuclear testing to be dangerous, wasteful and just plain stupid.

Returning to the Sahara, we decide to march back to the conference facilities through the front door of the casino. The sight of hundreds of banner waving hippies striding between the gambling tables causes quite a stir: startled and alarmed glances from the gamblers, a few surreptitious peace signs from the cocktail waitresses and security guards (and a request from the hotel management, who’d donated the conference facilities free of charge, that the incident not be repeated).

I’m brought swiftly back to earth by the afternoon workshop on the impacts of nuclear testing on indigenous peoples. When it’s over, I stop at a table run by our hosts, the Shoshones, who are issuing permits to be on their land to anyone who plans to risk arrest at the test site the next day. Although I’m not planning to be arrested, I pick one up, thinking it will make a good souvenir of my trip. Attack of the Eco Tourist.

When the conference was originally being planned, no one knew Saddam Hussein was about to invade Iraq or that George Bush was going to rush his country into a war waged for cheap oil. The only good news on January 4th (as the clock ticks down towards President Bush’s January 15th deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait) is the announcement that a meeting has finally been arranged between the US and Iraqi authorities.

Even the most optimistic amongst us did not believe this meeting will result in a peaceful solution. Both protagonists are too deeply entrenched, neither cares how many body bags are shipped off the battlefield. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War, both sides think Almighty God/Allah is on their side. One, if not both, must be wrong.

The imminent threat of war is much on the mind of Margaret Brenman-Gibson, a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

She points out that the US Constitution contains a series of checks and balances to ensure the power to wage war does not rest in the hands of one man. Her message is clear: The President of the United States is flagrantly abusing his powers and the newly sworn-in Congress is aiding and abetting him by spinelessly refusing to challenge him.

This message is eloquently revisited by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who was catapulted into the spotlight during the Vietnam war for releasing the Pentagon Papers. An anti-war hero for decades, Ellsberg states simply: Congress must refuse to countenance the impending bloodbath and, if the President ignores their veto, they must (despite the insurance he’d taken out in the form of Dan Quayle) impeach him. Considering his audience, it’s hardly surprising that he gets a five minute standing ovation. (And imagine my delight, 20 minutes later, when I’m able to shake Ellsberg’s hand. Attack of the Peacenik Groupie.)

Later, in the casino, I take an informal poll, asking tourists at the bars and the slot machines how they feel about going to war in Iraq. With the exception of one man with very short hair and a clearly military bearing, everyone I speak to is against fighting in Iraq. Then I ask them what they’re doing about it. They give me blank looks, so I explain: Congress could still vote to refuse the President permission to go to war. Are they phoning/faxing/writing to their Congressman and Senator, telling them that if they vote for war they’ll never get their vote again? More blank stares and some head shaking. “That can’t be right,” they say to me, asking, “Where did you get that?” I smile at them, trying to look helpful, rather than despairing, and say, “It’s in your Constitution.” They don’t believe me.

I eventually give up and go off to consume a 24-hour 99¢ breakfast for dinner. (As these breakfasts are the cheapest thing to eat in Sin City and I’m on a very tight budget, I consume quite a few of them. I’m awoken one night from a deep sleep by a noise I fear might be the sound of my arteries hardening. Fortunately it’s actually two of my three roommates snoring.)

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