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Octogenarian Coined 'Omnicide' During Lifelong Push for Peace

November 30, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

EL CAJON — In the context of nuclear weapons, war is a misnomer--an impossibility.

With two superpowers having the capability of destroying every human on the face of the earth a dozen times over, the word "war," said philosopher John Somerville, is an inappropriate--even violent--use of language.

"The word war is inaccurate and misleading," he said, "for the simple reason that what we've always called war is survivable by most of the human race."

Since the beginning of time, war has been based on the notion that one side would win, he said.

"But no matter how destructive the war was, you could always count on the fact that most of the human race would still be alive. The planet would still be livable."

War can even be "just," he said, as in the case of armies resisting Hitler and Nazism. But how can any war that destroys all humankind be just ?

A few years ago, Somerville started thinking of a word that transcended suicide, genocide, infanticide--the killing of all humans--and ended up with omnicide . Now 81 and spending his days in a quaint house overlooking the El Cajon Valley, Somerville is given credit for inventing the word, which he says is the only true description of the end result of nuclear holocaust.

Omnicide, not war.

The killing of all life, destruction of all things.

It isn't winnable. It isn't limited. It is final and absolute.

For his linguistic talent and a lifelong commitment to the peace movement, Somerville was recently designated the winner of the Ghandi Peace Award, an annual honor bestowed by a Connecticut group, Promoting Enduring Peace. The award will be given at a conference in New Haven in April. Past recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, former U.N. Secretary General U Thant, anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, Linus Pauling, Dr. Benjamin Spock and theologian William Sloane Coffin.

Coffin once made the statement, "If you don't stand for something, you're apt to fall for anything." Somerville's colleagues and friends say he's the type who always takes a stand, who never settles for a fall.

Paul Allen III is professor of philosophy at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pa., and has known Somerville for years. Long before they met, however, he was using a Somerville play--"The Crisis: The True Story About How the World Almost Ended"--as a text in classes. It's a "docudrama" about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and how President Kennedy "took us over the brink," Allen said, in tempting nuclear conflict with the Soviets.

Allen said his first impression of Somerville was one that lasted.

"He's an extremely sensitive and kind fellow," Allen said by telephone from his home in Pennsylvania. "He's very human, very dear and has a wonderful sense of humor. He loves to joke. He doesn't have a chip on his shoulder. He's very alive. Jolly all the time, full of love and good cheer. He is what he believes. More than anyone I know, he is a man of peace."

Somerville is the author of 10 books and two plays, one being "The Crisis." All probe the all-too-grisly perils of omnicide. In the introduction to Somerville's book, "The Philosophy of Peace," a friend named Albert Einstein wrote:

"It is not only a careful analysis of the relevant moral and historical records, but a sign of remarkable independence and courage. If your work should find the attention in this country it merits, it would counteract effectively the present state of hysterical fear and would lead to a more sane and constructive political attitude."

Somerville's other credentials include being American president of the Union of American and Japanese Professionals Against Nuclear Omnicide; chairman of the National Campaign for No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons, and founding president of International Philosophers for Prevention of Nuclear Omnicide.

He is a small, almost bald man with a wry sense of humor that pops up at unexpected times, in unexpected ways. Saving the world is serious business--Somerville approaches it that way. But he never seems dogmatic or inflexible or burdened with the weight of a wickedly weighty task.

"His greatest concern has been--and I mean this sincerely--saving the world," said Howard Frazier, executive director of Promoting Enduring Peace, which is giving Somerville the award. "He has worked harder than anyone I know to save the world from nuclear disaster. I've got to take my hat off to a person who works like the devil--with no pay--to save the earth. Literally."

Somerville's earth-saving venture began in New York City. He grew up in Manhattan and received all his degrees, including his doctorate, from Columbia University. His teaching career began at Hunter College of the City University of New York in 1929, but he left in 1948 to carry out a lifelong dream--to teach at Stanford University, but more precisely to move to California.

Unfortunately for him, his visiting professorship expired a year later.

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