The possibility of nuclear war, and of the complete annihilation of life on our planet, loomed larger in the popular imagination of the early 1960s than it does now. In the United States, a civilian infrastructure for dealing with nuclear war was part of the fabric of the culture. Schools and other public buildings had yellow and black signs advertising that they contained nuclear fallout shelters, sporting a symbol of nuclear war. This possibility, our fear of it, and our possible responses to it, were also explored in several episodes of The Twilight Zone. In addition to “One More Pallbearer,” fallout shelters, both planned and accidental, feature prominently in “The Shelter” and “Time Enough at Last.”
Like “The Shelter,” this episode explores the moral dimension of this extreme condition. How ought we to act when we find out that guaranteed mutual destruction is imminent? Do extreme circumstances change the moral equation? We touched on that topic in when we considered “I Shot an Arrow into the Air”, and suggested a negative answer. The moral law should cover all circumstances. Extreme circumstances do provide a test for moral theories, but they do precisely because what is right or wrong must apply in those circumstances as they do in all others.
Paul Radin, an extremely wealthy and powerful businessperson, summons three of his childhood mentors to his personal fallout shelter. There he has installed an impressive multi-media presentation running a simulation of an impending nuclear attack. Announcements of the attack are made over loudspeakers. A large television monitor is ready provide video of what’s happening above-ground. Radin’s plan is trick his three visitors into thinking that they are under nuclear attack, and Radin is sure that they will beg him to let them ride out the attack in his shelter. In this position of power, Radin will extract revenge for perceived slights and indignities he thinks he suffered at their hands in his formative years. This is a bizarrely elaborate plan of revenge, but Radin has vast resources, and an even larger grudge.
Radin is certain that his guests will wish to remain safely underground, since doing otherwise means certain death. He fails to make sense of their commitments to their loved ones, and their need to be with the people who mean most to them at this critical time. He fails to see that even with the utilitarian scales pushed completely in his favor, his guests will weigh what matters quite differently. It simply doesn’t make sense to him that someone would sacrifice their future existence to play out their last few minutes in the company of people they care about.d
The episode is a study of moral bankrupcy, which is arguably a kind of insanity. At the end of the episode, Radin hallucinates an actual nuclear Armageddon, where he is the lone survivor. The doomsday result is really a metaphor for the shattering of his life: He really is alone, since he can’t even comprehend the nature and power of sympathy, a precondition for moral engagement with others. It is the end of his world, and for someone with out a meaningful connection to others, it is the end of the whole world.