Sunday, October 10, 2010

Apocalypse Pending

by Richard Crews
On May 8, 1945, "Victory in Europe Day" (V-E Day), the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. I was seven years old. A remarkable change came over my family that day: I realized that my parents had been scared as long as I had known them and that they weren't scared any more.

But the end of World War II signaled the arrival of a new era of fear. Over the next few years it dawned on our consciousness that nuclear weapons--newly discovered, then enhanced and proliferated--could destroy our planet and our species (or any national segment thereof) and that the U.S.S.R. was aggressively bent on our destruction.

For the next 45 years until 1989, I (we) lived on the brink--second by second, minute by minute--of annihilation. Perhaps you remember this feeling clearly; perhaps you do not. It was very real. There was nothing hypothetical or emotionally detached about it. The Doomsday Clock hovered at a few minutes before midnight. A friend of mine in college (a straight-A student, a history major) seriously decided not to study for final exams because it seemed so likely--so clear--that the civilized world would not be around much longer.

Then in 1989 with a vast, worldwide, collective sigh of relief, the Berlin Wall came down. Those of us who had lived our entire lives under the second-by-second threat of nuclear annihilation--waiting for the blinding flash in the sky so that we could "duck and cover" before the shock wave hit so that we could prolong our lives a few minutes--a few hours--a few days at the most . . . we simply didn't know how to feel. We had never lived in a "safe" world and didn't know how to do it--we didn't know how to think, how to feel.

As we got used to it--as we began to learn to celebrate and to revel in it--it became clear that the "war" was not over. Terrorists with suitcase-size weapons of mass destruction (with "dirty" radioactive bombs or with chemical or biological agents powerful enough to kill millions) were all around us, driven by strange, violent ideologies. "Normal" business and finance had gotten so fast and massively global that a malevolent act--or a simple mistake strategically located--could bring the worldwide economy to its knees in a matter of minutes. Political paralysis and debt financing seemed poised and ready to destroy our civilized way of life. And behind it all "the wheels of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine"--pollution, global warming, the population bomb, famine, groundwater loss--or for those more sophisticated and "in the know," nanotechnology, biogenetics, the digital take-over....

Perhaps it has always been so. In millennia past, ice ages, droughts, predators, and the like have threatened our survival. (Some scientists believe, for example--on the basis of genetic studies--that at one point a million-or-so years ago the human race was nearly driven to extinction--reduced in numbers to a single small group--perhaps to a single breeding pair.)

In more recent centuries, plagues of disease or invading barbarian hoards (or even more local, adventurous potentates) have repeatedly hit the "reset" button and driven civilization as we (or "ours") knew it to the brink of destruction.

This essay--this stream of ruminations--may not have any "conclusion." Or for some it may be, "See, God has always looked after us and always will." For others, "If you put your head in the lion's mouth often enough, sooner or later you will lose it." (Even Steve Irwin did.) Or perhaps the amazing human intellect should merely cast all this as a fly speck in geologic or astronomic time.