On an average working day in the flat ranch country outside Amarillo, Tex., about 2,400 people travel over a two-lane highway to the huge plant where they work. There is nothing unusual about these commuters, except for one thing: they build nuclear bombs for a living.
Since the 1950s, this one plant has assembled all the nuclear bombs in our arsenal with little more fanfare than if they'd been building refrigerators. But now, as our anxiety about extinction is catalyzed into intense debate, Amarillo has become a crucible for concern.
Last summer Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen raised tempers and consciousness when the 60-year-old Texan wrote to his diocese asking "individuals involved in the production and stockpiling of nuclear bombs to consider what they are doing, to resign from such activities and to seek employment in peaceful pursuits."
The flap that followed was predictable. The bishop announced in February that Catholic Family Services would offer counseling for the workers. On March 11, The United Way, under pressure from the business community, dropped funding for Family Services. Today a controversy rages in the town that numbers bombs its biggest business.
In a simple, clear message, the bishop asked the workers to confront the sea change in our national thinking about nuclear bombs. Bombs that were justified by many as deterrents are seen increasingly as suicidal. A job that was once considered patriotic is now perhaps unconscionable, even immoral.
The word "immoral" is not one that trips easily off our tongues in this case, nor was the bishop's call read lightly.
"Those of us who have some options have more luxury to make ethical judgments," says Roger Kasperson who deals with ethical questions of the workplace at Clark University. Sissela Bok, who teaches ethics at the Harvard Medical School, says, simply, "It's very easy to run someone into an unemployed person."
On the other hand, both agree that we all are obliged to consider the ethics of our work. Since Nuremberg, there is no defense in "just following orders," no moral immunity in "not knowing."
"I think it is an heroic act (to resign)," said the bishop in a phone interview. He doesn't expect many heroes, doesn't expect to close down the plant. "For every worker who quits, I know there will be a dozen applying." But he is after "raising awareness and questioning decisions." This he has done. No one can work at the plant any longer without confronting the reality that his or her product is overkill. No one can live in Amarillo without being conscious of this debate.
What has begun in that community affects us all. We are all being called on now to judge the morality of our actions, to be accountable by the bishop's single standard: "the very future of human life."