Still, insistently, we want to be upbeat about the world. Desperately, we want to receive streams of reassuring messages on the cell phone, and on related social networks. When someone is asked, “How are you?” the answer is always be the same. “I’m great.”
This is an unhesitating or push-button response, a mostly untruthful reply, born of an almost viscerally felt need to appear popular, vibrant and “successful.” Such need is not merely demeaning and injurious; it is also sorely misplaced. No one of us is ever really “successful” except to the extent that we may become privileged to relieve the pain of others.
There will always be suffering and injustice in the world. In major matters of world affairs, nothing really important ever changes. Yes, we may continue to develop shiny new electronic toys, telephones, and other gadgets to fill the breathlessly busy but often empty days. Nonetheless, on the utterly overriding issue of human survival, we will probably live more precariously and tentatively than ever before.
In this persistently omnivorous arrangement of planetary politics, we humans remain dedicated to all conceivable varieties of ritual violence, and to various sacrificial practices that are conveniently disguised as war, politics, or diplomacy. Oddly, perhaps, this grotesque dedication is not necessarily an example of immorality or foolishness. After all, our entire system of international relations, first shaped after the Thirty Years’ War at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), is itself rooted in a codified pattern of institutional horror.
No doubt many of us will continue to live well personally, but only because we have steadfastly refused to believe what is coming. Preoccupied with gossip and nonsense, the television and electronic news devotes more time each day to the latest celebrity sex scandals, sports team rivalries, and local killings than to the increasingly impending paroxysms of mega-terror and nuclear war.
Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics, charts, and numerical calculations, we Americans still misunderstand the animating rhythms of particular enemy civilizations. These relentless adversaries can never be influenced by any conspicuously humane or concessionary prospects for “peace.” Instead, eagerly embracing homicide as remediation, these foes will prefer to leer voluptuously over expected mountains of fresh corpses. Then, because we have consistently failed to understand them, they will declare, contentedly, “Life is good.”
For global civilization, hope exists, but it must now sing softly, weakly, in an undertone. For some, the palpable horror of life on earth may even create a deafening noise, but for them it will still be possible to listen for faint sounds of grace and harmony. To survive as a species, we must first pay very close attention to our utterly private states of anxiety, restlessness and apprehension.
In some measure, the time for “science,” “modernization,” “globalization,” “social networks,” and “new information technologies” is already over. To prevail, the individual human being must somehow learn to rediscover what Ralph Waldo Emerson had called a “genuine” or “self-reliant” life, one that is deliberately detached from mass identity, overriding death fear, and, especially, ritually violent promises of immortality.
With such a candid expression of an awakened and mortal individuality, we humans could still learn that agony is more important than astronomy, that cries of despair are more meaningful than the most exquisitely refined powers of technology, and that flowing tears have much deeper meanings than publicly constructed smiles. “The man who laughs,” commented playwright Bertolt Brecht, “has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”
In the end, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, etc., are merely symptoms. We humans now lack a tolerable global future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.
Our core problem is not that we have eaten too sparingly of the Tree of Knowledge, but that we have stubbornly refused to eat voraciously from the Tree of Life.
Until we can finally understand who we are as individual persons, we will always be preparing to fight and debate the next war.
Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.