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
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
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
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.