“Three billion human lives ended on August 29, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war ‘Judgment Day.’ They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines.”

If you’re a sci-fi movie buff, you probably know that these are the opening words of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the classic 1991 film by director James Cameron. Today, August 29, 2013, is the sixteenth anniversary of the fictional apocalypse that is the set-up for the Terminator scenario.

It’s kind of amazing to think about, especially if you remember seeing Terminator 2 in the theater when it came out. At that time, 1997 was six years in the future, and the time-frame the Terminator is sent back from–2029–was almost 40 years out. To put that in perspective, 2029 is exactly the same “distance” in our future–16 years–as 1997 is in our past.

The “Judgment Day” that forms the subtitle of James Cameron’s Terminator 2 involves a nuclear war. We’re not out of the woods yet, so far as that threat is concerned.

Depictions of the future in science fiction almost always say more about the time in which they were created than any future time. In 1991, the Cold War had just ended and the threat of nuclear destruction, at least according to the old “Mutually Assured Destruction” scenario, seemed to have receded. The plot point in Terminator 2 even plays on this a little. In the movie’s mythology, SkyNet, the computer that controls the robots, launches U.S. nuclear missiles at Russia precisely to provoke a massive retaliation that will wipe out most of human civilization, thus leaving the planet open for the machines to conquer. This would have been a highly ironic apocalypse: after the end of the Cold War, the machinery we put in place to maintain it–and which by 1997 we no longer needed–ended up destroying us anyway.

Is a global nuclear holocaust still a possibility? Technically the answer is yes. The major nuclear powers–the United States, Russia and China–each still possess more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy most life on Earth, either directly or through an indirect “nuclear winter” scenario. What has changed is the likelihood of such a scenario. Certainly a massive unprovoked nuclear strike by one superpower against another would result in a retaliation that would replicate the old MAD paradigm. But how likely is that to happen? Is there a political or ideological objective, existing in the mind of anyone on the planet, that would be realistically achievable by destroying the world?

Probably not, but the old Cold War logic–as Terminator 2 points out–is subject to various caveats, such as, “This presumes everyone in control of nuclear weapons is sane and rational.” Terminator 2 creates its nightmare scenario by placing MAD in the hands of an actor that is indifferent to the survival of the human species. Classic Cold War horror films like Dr. StrangeloveFail Safe and By The Dawn’s Early Light imagined a MAD scenario triggered accidentally by human error, human insanity or technical malfunction. Could that still happen today? Sure, but again, the human checks on the system might–I stress might–be different than they were in Cold War times, or even in 1997.

The trailer for “Fail Safe,” the nuclear war film made in 1964.

Obviously, the big fear today is nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors who are judged either to be irrational or not subject to traditional forms of control. There is also the threat, much more terrifying in my mind, of a regional or “low-intensity” nuclear conflict, such as between India and Pakistan, or between North Korea and someone else (China?). We don’t know how many nuclear explosions are too many to trigger nuclear winter or some other catastrophe, and for obvious reasons no one is keen to find out.

I believe the goal of nuclear disarmament, as President Obama and other modern leaders have urged, is a laudable one–but unfortunately it is probably unattainable. Countries like Iran seek nuclear weapons not to use them, but for the benefits of being essentially “immunized” from an attack by any other country, including a superpower. (Realistically, who’s going to attack North Korea if they know the retaliation will be nuclear?) in that sense, as crazy as it sounds, nuclear weapons may actually be a stabilizing influence on the world. That argument ignores the obvious moral implications of nuclear war, and thus I stop short of endorsing it–but it’s worth thinking about.

Let’s hope Judgment Day, or something like it, never comes.