The crisis between India and Pakistan has sparked international concern that a war might quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange. But there is little public concern in both countries about that prospect, and that appears to be due to a lack of public awareness of what nuclear weapons can do.
It is not uncommon to hear people in Pakistan say "Nuke India" or Indians chant "Nuke Pakistan."
Experts here say that, in the climate of deep hatred between the two countries, nuclear weapons have, in effect, been trivialized to the point that the unthinkable is actually contemplated. They say there is an almost total lack of education in both countries about the horrifying destruction a nuclear war would inflict on both sides.
Estimates by U.S. defense officials are that 9-12 million people would be killed in a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. Whole cities would be wiped out and their areas uninhabitable for years to come.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and physics professor at Qaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, says people tend to think of a nuclear weapon just as another, bigger bomb.
"I think that, fundamentally, there is a problem of ignorance," said Prof. Hoodbhoy. "And furthermore, this ignorance has been exacerbated by the fact that there has been a glorification of nuclear weapons here in Pakistan. The media have totally ignored what these nuclear weapons are about, what they can do. Instead, they have focussed upon them as being instruments of power, being things that you glorify."
Professor Hoodbhoy says people in Pakistan seem to fatalistically accept the fact that such weapons would be used. "There is a deep fatalism that runs throughout the society," he went on. "There is a belief that somehow the stars have determined it, or it's written into fate itself. Add to all this the feeling that people will be rewarded in the hereafter and, particularly, with the people in the military. For them, dying is a matter of honor and perhaps necessity."
Naseer Akhtar, a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistan Army, insists nuclear weapons would never be used. But he agrees that people have to be educated about the effects of nuclear war.
"They haven't learned what the horrors of the nuclear war are, and they have to be educated. They're all an uneducated mass," said Gen. Akhtar. "We don't educate them in both the countries because then it becomes difficult for the government to handle such a situation. So education is the foremost thing. Because presently they [the military] have an excellent command and control system where the nuclear will never be used."
But education is also needed at the official level, says Japanese Ambassador to Pakistan Sadaaki Numata. He says it is frightening to think that Pakistan and India have nuclear capabilities many times greater than the single bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Japanese Government has been trying to get that message across in Islamabad and New Delhi.
"We have been saying to the leaders of both Pakistan and India that, being the only country to have suffered from the indescribable devastation of nuclear weapons, we are genuinely concerned about an armed conflict between India and Pakistan escalating, and, perhaps, escalating into a nuclear war. That could mean the devastation of all. Yes, we have been conveying this concern," said Amb. Numata.
But the unanswered question is, are the leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi listening?