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Utahns exhorted to tackle big issues

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U. communication professor George Cheney speaks on "thinking about the unthinkable" on Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library.

U. communication professor George Cheney speaks on “thinking about the unthinkable” on Sunday at the Salt Lake City Library.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Utahns should think about tough issues such as a possible new nuclear arms buildup, terrorism, poverty and climate change, and not just focus on shopping and other everyday activities, according to a speaker in a meeting sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council.

George Cheney, a professor of communication at the University of Utah, spoke Sunday afternoon during a session that drew about 35 to a conference room in the Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South. His topic was "Thinking About the Unthinkable and Talking about the Tough Stuff. Making Sense of Nuclear Weapons and Other Big Issues that Confront Us."

The multimedia presentation was developed by Cheney and Lou Borgenicht, Mary Dixon, Danielle Endres and Annette Rose. It was part of the council's Public Square series.

Issues that seem "utterly overwhelming to us" deserve attention, Cheney said. They should be examined and debated, in order to have a "more robust democracy here in Utah and elsewhere."

Many young Americans think of nuclear arms as "a completely historical phenomenon," he said. Yet they present a dangerous situation, with about eight or nine countries possessing the weapons; the number isn't known because of uncertainty about whether Israel or Iran have the bomb, he said.

Another question that people should think about is, "What has happened to all the warheads, especially in southern or central Asian nations that once were part of the Soviet Union?" The fear is that they may be detonated by countries or terrorists.

Cheney added, "Dirty bombs refer to conventional weapons that are used to disperse nuclear materials."

Nuclear waste also should be a topic of discussion, he said. A question here is "Will Utah accept nuclear waste that comes from Italy? ...

"We really believe the timing is good to return to these issues."

Mutually assured destruction, by which the United States and the former Soviet Union held each other at bay without fighting a nuclear war, also came in for scrutiny. It is "a very risky proposition from a technical standpoint," he said.

Beyond the chance of accidentally starting a nuclear holocaust, he said, mutually assured destruction poses a moral question. If the superpowers destroy each other, they would wreck the rest of the globe, he said.

Does a nation have the right to threaten the destruction of the rest of the world? Cheney asked.

Secrecy and deception resulting from the nuclear weapons arsenal are damaging to a democracy, he said. Then there is damage from fallout resulting from nuclear bomb tests, he said. Terrorism is a large concern, too, he said.

How should Americans approach these risks?

"You're more likely to die of a bee sting or a fall in the bathtub than ... an act of terror." But he warned against a return to "our comfortable cocoon of consumerism."

Cheney called for people to make a difference through such avenues as letters to the editors of newspapers and contributing to political blogs.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com