We Jews are already accustomed to irony, but – only rarely – does the subject in question rise to the daunting level of human survival. Here, however, is one of those rare subjects. Considering it carefully, we can begin to appreciate the obligation to look at our world with genuinely larger questions in mind. In other words, we should quickly begin to recognize a distinct imperative to look behind the news.
The “story” I have presently in mind begins at the airport (any airport). There, each time I get on a plane, I am promptly struck by the profoundly ironic contradictions. As a species, it seems, we can take tons of heavy metal and shape them into vehicles of air travel. Yet, we must also take off our shoes and segregate our “liquids and gels” before being allowed to board. After all, we understand, some on board may always be trying to murder their fellow passengers.
What is wrong with us? Surely, the gap between technical intelligence and empathy is now more glaring than ever. Where precisely, have we humans gone wrong? This is not an academic question. It is the single most practical question that we must answer. Until we do, all proposed solutions to war, terror and genocide will be irremediably partial, limited and temporary.
Like it or not, we Americans are part of a much wider human family. This imperiled global community continues to reveal, without humiliation or embarrassment, the plainly delicate veneer of social coexistence. Recalling William Golding’s shipwrecked boys in Lord of the Flies, we must also admit that behind this veneer lurks a dreadful barbarism. Reading the latest world news, we must unhesitatingly acknowledge that an entire world could once again become “bloodless,” a global “skeleton.” We inhabit a badly-despoiled planet; we now face genuinely existential crises with nary a serious remedy in mind.
Why? How has an entire species, scarred and miscarried from the start, managed to scandalize even its own creation? Are we all the potential murderers of those who live beside us? Looking at history, we know that this is not a silly question.
Today, in all-too-many places, the human corpse remains a grotesque object of supremely high fashion. Soon, especially with spreading weapons of mass destruction, whole nations of corpses could become the rage. Following even a small nuclear war, cemeteries the size of entire cities would be needed to bury the dead. Before anything decent could be born into this post-apocalypse world, only a snarling gravedigger could wield the forceps.
Unremarkably, the silence of “good people” is vital to all that would madden and torment. Yet these good people, here and in other countries, normally remain quiet. To be sure, there will always be deeply impassioned reactions to the latest exterminations in Africa or Asia or Europe, but here, in America, amidst our indisputably “advanced civilization,” the audible sighs are never so bothersome as to interfere with lunch.
How much treasure, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many centuries have we humans ransacked to allow a seemingly unstoppable carnival of chemical, biological and nuclear harms? Frightened by the always irrepressible specter of personal death, and also by the sometimes desperate need to belong – to be an acceptable member of a state, a faith, a race, a tribe, often for the wrong reasons, at literally all costs (even at the cost of killing outsiders), how much longer can so many be permitted to project their own private terrors on to public world politics?
I don’t know the answer. I do know, however, that we cannot remain unmindful that these are the critically important questions before us. Finding answers to them will thus be indispensable to solving our more particular and insistent survival, security and economic problems.
French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason wrote of a siècle des lumieres, a century of light, but the early twenty-first century is still mired in a bruising darkness. This can be changed, but only if we first learn the core difference in human affairs between cause and effect. To succeed, we must learn to base our national and international remedies on conquering the real “disease,” not just on mitigating symptoms.
It is nice to believe in progress, but usually history reveals only intermittently catastrophic patterns of decline.
In the end, all of the visible Earth is made of ashes, but even ashes can have very tangible meaning. Through the obscure depths of history, we should now struggle heroically to make out the phantoms of sunken ships of state and to learn more about the then-foreseeable disasters that had sent them down.
All too often, the barbarians are not found “outside the gates.” The destructive human inclination to reject compassion, to tolerate evil and to turn away from serious learning still lies latent within many, relentless; recalcitrant; heavy, and (above all) dangerous.
We humans build impressively complex machines to fly us through the air, but we must continuously fear that some among us will transform these marvelous vehicles into instruments of annihilation.
The ironic contradictions of the present age remain stark, and dense with implication. It is high time to look behind the news and figure them out.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and publishes widely on international relations and international law. The author of ten major books on world affairs, he was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.