Each time I get on an airplane, I am struck by contradictions. We are a species that can take tons of heavy metal and transform it into an instrument of travel, transporting millions of passengers at very high speeds from one place to another. At the same time, we are required to take off our shoes before being allowed to board the plane, not for reasons of civilized comfort, but rather to ensure that we are not about to destroy the aircraft.
Moreover, many of our fellow human beings are forever trying to invent still more ingenious methods of mass killing in the skies. Recently, we were warned of the special dangers that now lie latent in various electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops – devices originally designed not for murder, but for pleasure and convenience.
What has gone wrong for humankind, especially in the overtly death-centered Arab/Islamic world? As a species, how shall we explain the growing gap between technical intelligence and reason?
In the time following 9/11, certain elements continue to reveal with anguish and clarity the delicate veneer of human society. Recalling William Golding’s shipwrecked boys in his novel, Lord Of The Flies, we discover that behind our civilized veneer always lurks a dreadful barbarism.
Reading through the daily newspapers, we unavoidably encounter a world apt to become bloodless, a skeleton, facing war and genocide with little concern about its impending fate. To be sure, our global civilization does make a great deal of noise, but the true point of all this delirium is ultimately to keep man from remembering G-d.
Why? How has so large a portion of our species scandalized its own creation? How many people are potential murderers of those who live beside them? Must every airplane passenger be a suspect terrorist? How have we gone so terribly wrong?
Today, as we look back at a 20th century that can only be described as the Age of Atrocity, there is little cause for optimism. Wherever we look, the corpse remains in fashion. Soon, with the assistance of spreading weapons of mass destruction, especially in Iran and other portions of the Arab/Islamic Middle East, whole nations of corpses will be the rage. Following even a small nuclear war, almost certainly a jihad or “Holy War,” cemeteries the size of entire cities will be needed to bury the dead.
How sad it all is. The appalling silence of good people is absolutely vital to all who would madden and torment. Yet these good people remain generally still, as quiet as they were from 1933 to 1945, content to spend their days impressing the neighbors and preparing their children for prestigious nursery schools.
Yes, of course there are appropriately impassioned reactions to the latest suicide bombings against Israeli civilians; to expanding exterminations in Africa, and even to the accelerating nuclearizations in Iran and North Korea. But the sighs and tears and obligatory exclamations of disbelief are rarely so serious as to interfere with lunch.
How sad, how sad it all is. I write these words as parts of the Arab/Islamic world think excitedly about future wars, some very carefully planned, others still largely unrehearsed. How much treasure, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many centuries have been ransacked to allow this seemingly unstoppable spasm of chemical, biological and nuclear conflict! Frightened by the spectre of personal death and also by the persistently desperate need to belong – how much longer can our fellow humans disguise and project their tortuous private terrors in world politics?
I don’t really know the answers, although I am certainly making some progress in figuring them out. I do know for sure that the universities are essentially unmindful of these important questions, and that they now proceed in their day-to-day business of education with precious little regard for anything that is not marketable, measurable or narrowly profitable. The French philosophers of the 18th-century Age of Reason liked to speak of a siecle des lumieres, a century of light, but most nations in the early 21st century remain mired in the bruising darkness, unaware that we are not here forever, and that we can make ourselves disappear.
As Jews, we understand that memory is always the beginning of redemption. But how shall humanity recall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome – ground to dust and burned into oblivion. Is this our collective human fate? Are we all presently still alive merely to become captives of corrupted knowledge and of an increasingly ominous terminal despair?
Hope remains, as it always must, but it should now sing softly, muted, in an undertone. First we must all learn to understand that the visible Earth is made of ashes, and that ashes have authentic meaning. Through the obscure depths of history, we must now struggle to make out the phantoms of great ships of state, and to learn that the disasters that sent them down were unquestionably of their own making.
We must study history, but no longer in an atmosphere of contrived greatness. The barbarians are not all outside the gates; the inclination to tolerate barbarism lies latent within many, heavy and dangerous. As for politics as usual - the upcoming festival of yet another presidential election is a good example - it can never save us. All ordinary politics is “normally” a distraction; shamelessly besmirching life’s great promise with complacent and purposeless babble. There are exceptions, to be sure, but not enough to grant modern civilization the reprieve it now needs to survive.
The Jewish philosopher Abraham J. Heschel, in his Who Is Man? (1965) lamented that, “The emancipated man is yet to emerge.” Heschel then asked all human beings to raise the following questions wherever they turn: “What is expected of me?” “What is demanded of me?” Indebtedness, an indebtedness to resist mass society, is assumed by Heschel to be part of our very being in the universe.
We are living at a moment in history when it is almost impossible to think of collective human behavior without revulsion. It is essential that camouflage and concealment in the mass give way to what Heschel calls “being challenged in the world,” to creating and sustaining small oases of reverence and achievement.
We humans can build complex machines to fly through the air, but we must also fear that some others will use these aircraft as calculated instruments of murder. The contradictions are stark and dense with implication. It is high time to finally figure them out at the most basic species level. Until we do, even our most informed musings about particular human issues and problems will remain distressingly incomplete.