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As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." And you can learn a lot just by reading.

Last week, The New York Times contained a long obituary of Ella Goldberg Wolfe, who died on Jan. 9 at age 103. Wolfe's life spanned three centuries, and what a life it was! In 1919, with her husband, Bertram Wolfe, she wrote the manifesto that created the Communist Party of the United States.

The Times ran Edward Weston's portrait of Ella from about 1925 with the obit; it shows a grave, beautiful young woman, half-smiling at the camera. She looks like a person upon whose judgment you could rely.

In 1929, the Wolfes went to Moscow, where they met Stalin. They dared contradict him on a minor point of party orthodoxy, which resulted in their arrest and eventual expulsion from the workers' paradise. They were, of course, lucky to escape with their lives. Sixty-five years later, Ella described Stalin:

"He was smaller than I expected, with a pockmarked face, a brutal mouth and the yellow eyes of a mountain lion."

The January issue of Harper's contains an essay by Jonathan Schell which is, in a sense, about Ella's life. Titled "The Unfinished Twentieth Century: What We Have Forgotten About Nuclear Weapons," it may be the most important essay about this subject since John Hersey's "Hiroshima." The essay's core is Schell's account of the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by the development, possession and use of nuclear arms, and how our country has dealt with these dilemmas.

One of Schell's points is that the possession of nuclear weapons, even in the absence of a hostile totalitarian rival bent on world domination, has become an unexceptional and ordinary part of American policy. In a dangerous world, we think that we need them, just as do the Chinese, the Russians, the French, the English, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis.

Meanwhile, reading letters to the editor and miscellaneous columns in the publication formerly known as the Gazette-Telegraph, I was struck by the congruent thought processes of diplomats and gun advocates.

Against all logic, governments around the world believe that their national interests are best served by having nuclear weapons. After all, if your neighbor has nukes, and you don't, he'll just take you over, rape your women, enslave your children, kill your elders and make you all fall down and worship graven idols.

But as any reader of Catch 22 can tell you, the best way to survive a perilous world is to stay out of the line of fire and avoid offending the powerful. If you don't want to be flattened by Jevon Kearse on his way to sacking the quarterback, don't play in the NFL. And if you don't want to get nuked, be Bhutan, not Pakistan.

Similarly, gunnies believe that owning a firearm makes you safer, when every statistic tells you it ain't so. Absent private ownership of firearms, countries are safer.

Individuals without firearms are far less likely to be injured by a firearm than those who have 'em. But logic doesn't matter to a firearms advocate; he'll simply say that he has a right to self-protection, and screw you if you don't like it.

The culture of gun ownership tells us, then, that if an individual is safer with a Tec-9 under the bed, our country must really be safe with 20,000 big nukes at our beck and call.

Maybe. But what happens when another hard and pitiless man, with the yellow eyes of a mountain lion, arises in Russia, or China, or India? Better that we spend the next 25 years getting rid of the world's nukes rather than preserving our arsenals so that the next world-destroyer can decimate our planet.

And while we're at it, you might start by tossing out that Tec-9 before the kids find it. [p] --

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