A Dangerous Law


THE ONE FORCE more damaging to a social movement than strong opposition is vehement action by fringe supporters. Both the moderate left and right are often stymied in their efforts to reach the center by the drastic actions of extremists. Consequently, it seems that passage of the Nuclear Free Cambridge referendum could significantly stall the momentum locally, statewide, and maybe even nationally for arms control and the nuclear freeze.

Question 2 on the November 8 municipal ballot would, if passed, make it a crime to do research and other work whose primary purpose would be the development of nuclear weapons. While 25 other cities across the country have already passed such a law. Cambridge would be the first that would affect existing work. Proponents boast two benefits from enacting such tough legislation: to enhance the safety of Cambridge residents, and to send a strong message to Washington.

The first claim is ludicrous. The most serious work in Cambridge directly related to the development of nuclear weaponry takes place at Draper Laboratories, which only helps devise the guidance systems for certain missiles. Nuclear bombs are not built within city limits: no explosive or radioactive materials are used. Supporters counter that Cambridge will be a safer place to live because it somehow would be lowered on the Soviet hit list--specious logic since Cambridge would still be in the backyard of hi-tech Boston.


Few supporters actually buy the safety question, but many are inclined to back the initiative because they think it would demonstrate to national policymakers the urgency of an arms control agreement and grassroots frustration with current progress. That is insufficient justification to vote for such a drastic measure. For the unquantifiable, unclear benefit of "making a statement" which might affect national policy the law will have two distinct negative effects on Cambridge. One is its impact on jobs. The law will force at least one company to close down, and will send a bad message to others. Cambridge already has some of the strictest business regulations in the country, and the Nuclear Free question would make them even tighter. Proponents assert that the referendum "mandates" more labor intensive industry and therefore will actually create jobs. But as long as a free market economy exists in the city, no cite can just "make" jobs, In the current shaky economy, common sense argues this no business will jump to fill the gap.

The second and more important disadvantage of the referendum is the blow it will deal to research. No matter how much one abhors the existence of nuclear weapons, the act of banning basic research seems to go against the most basic principles of the First Amendment. As President Bok, in his statement against the referendum stated, "our traditions of free speech and free inquiry are born of a conviction that governments are poor censors and ultimately serve us badly when they try to decide what kinds of knowledge are too dangerous to acquire. "It is one thing to ban the application of a certain technology--such as gun control or limits on DNA lab work--but it is probably unprecedented to ban the actual thought process creating that technology.


Even for those who think that in principle it is acceptable to impose such limits, it is almost impossible to practice. Supporters desperately point to the referendum's provision exempting "basic research, the primary purpose of which is not to work towards the development of nuclear weapons." But how a local investigator will differentiate between basic and specific research is unclear. Is a physicist developing a chain reaction equation that could increase the power of a nuclear explosion a criminal? Even if he isn't, will he be subject to a thorough police investigation? Representatives of Mobilization for Survival insist that only researchers with classified Defense Department contracts will be scrutinized. But the law doesn't say that, and anyone, no matter how radical, can use the law to bring a suit. Even if this actual law does not significantly restrict research in one of the academic capitals of the world, it sets the dangerous precedent for similar provisions in the future.

It is true that if voters approve of the ballot question, they will make a statement. But it won't be the intended one. By taking into their own hands a question that should be dealt with on the national level. Cambridge citizens will set an example for local activists across the country to set binding ordinances overriding a federal consensus. Local action is certainly an acceptable way to express opinions: the city's 1981 non-binding freeze referendum which drew 75 percent support is a good example. But binding local action on foreign policy is not. Abortion free zones, or racially integration free zones do not seem different in approach than the nuclear free ones.

Mobilization members may counter that there is no national consensus on nuclear arms, that no research on nuclear weapons--even that work that would make them safer, or better able to defer a Soviet attack--is good. Voters who disagree with the Reagan Administration's arms policies should realize that by supporting the referendum they are going beyond simply registering that dissatisfaction. Six leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president have endorsed a nuclear freeze, but the Nuclear Free Cambridge proposal gives up hope for national change. Supporters are giving up on arms control agreements. They are saying that the United States should unilaterally disarm. They are unrealistically hoping that they can wish nuclear weapons away, and that the problem will take care of itself.

City Councilor David Sullivan, a strong supporter of the nuclear freeze and almost always a champion of progressive causes, refused to endorse the referendum. Explaining his stance, Sullivan said that "we have to remember the way Cambridge is seen in the rest of the country--we are not regarded as the mainstream of America." He added that the proposal, if approved, "may make it too easy to characterize the movement for nuclear arms control as kooky." The referendum will not make instant converts of the conservative white House or congressman. It will make it easier for them to dismiss the broader based concern for arms control as extremist and to continue their dangerous policies.