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22 February 2003

Eight days after the Columbia came apart, news reports about debris were still saying, "from the accident in which seven people died." As if you had been in a coma or recently risen from the dead. Which set me to thinking about what we repeat and what we forget.

When I was a kid everyone around me was deeply fearful of imminent nuclear war. When I was a teen we were all scared to death of nuclear proliferation and rogue nations. Then it seems that this great forgetting occurred, between Gorbachev and Bin Laden, when we were afraid of smaller things. And now, we are surprised when war comes roaring out of the persistent global inequities and traditional, deeply stupid methods of dealing with conflict. Today, war and terrorism threaten, the news blares. As if we had been in a coma for a few hundred years. And maybe we have.

Most folks I talk to now seem to believe that Mr. Bush's urgent little war (along with the collateral damage of the frying of NATO and the United Nations, never mind the American claim to higher moral ground) is inevitable. Most folks also seem to know that global terrorism is here for a long ride. Many retreat to numbness, others to acceptance of powerlessness, still others to rage, some to prayer, some to denial.

Some of us, quite illogically, feel hope. My emotions are summed up in Captain Kirk's famous demand: "I want that third alternative." We live in the very petri dish of culture, swimming in rich nutrients for memes. Popular culture, media, technology, telecommunications, science, and even art are significantly more potentially potent than they were ten or five or one thousand years ago. The equipment for creativity, it is said, plays a significant role in the size of our brains. Yet we sit like zombies watching familiar patterns play out, patterns of war and retribution that we know in our stories and our bones. We write poetry and essays (mea culpa), we protest and say what if, but we cannot seem to change the stories or how they end. How is it that our upstart species has become so impotent? How is it that Americans, premier upstarts of the last two hundred years, are not coming up with some scheme more elegant than a bone-headed playground rumble that is bound to end worse than badly?

That violence is coming there can be no question. That horror will visit more than the remote, seemingly faceless folk of Rumania or Somalia is indeed inevitable. That Israel will explode is probable. Shall we be noble Romans, then, and fall on our blades before we are seriously inconvenienced?

The way out of this mess - another familiar pattern, but one we'd rather avoid - is a serious transformation with a serious cost. Heroes are not those who die quickly in bright light, but those who labor long in dimness with relentless hope. If we grasp the tools of culture and communication, if we engage all our wits and energies in the competition of ideas, grace may still come to our species in two or three generations.

There is likely no converting of the terrorists, fundamentalists, colonialists, racists, fatalists and greedy bastards of today. But unless life winks out suddenly, there is long-term potential for a changed world, where we put the issues that bind us together before all else: to see to the health of our Earth, to which all our hopes for joy in this life are inexorably linked. Our strategies are the achievement of social justice, the cultivation of values, the shaping of culture, the propagation of ideas that are corrosive to our time-hardened, wrong-headed ways. The cost will be a generation or two of our best efforts, and those years will be hard in ways we can't foresee.

It is like being a soldier in a way, I think. One memorizes duty and re-commits to it every day, so as to remember and perform it even in extremities of fear, exhaustion, or hopelessness. And if no shadow falls tomorrow, still it remains our urgent duty to begin inventing ways to generate new light.