I have been thinking recently about war. The children of my generation, our parents... their childhoods were dominated by the ever-looming threat of nuclear war. I am reading Madeline L'Engle's book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and its opening pages are rife with this fear. The fear of utter annihilation, of complete destruction, of the death of the human race. "One madman can push a button and it will destroy civilization." I began rereading this book this evening because it is about how a few people might tip the balance, might make some small difference in the world in favor of life, in favor of love and creation, in favor of harmony. The book, written in the late '70s, plays with time and narrative in a mind-bending way. The past is not past, and "as long as the future hasn't happened, there's a chance it may not happen." I began rereading this book tonight because I need reassurance, sometimes, I need to believe in the possibility of goodness. The possibility of peace.
But the world is a very different place now.
Once upon a time, this country used nuclear weapons as a deterrent--at least in theory. Once its citizens feared nuclear war as the very real and very close end days of the human race. Now, we have been living for two generations with the fact that we are the only country in the history of the world to have actually used a nuclear weapon against a civilian population. There were no consequences for us, safe on this side of the ocean, and American citizens have begun to forget the devastation, the sickening and useless destruction that war can cause. When we feel threatened, the average Joe cries out, "Nuke 'em till they glow and them shoot 'em in the dark!" We continue to build our arsenal, and the itch to use it, to show it off, is ever-present and worsening.
We mourn the "massacre" of thirty people in a senseless killing spree perpetuated by a single, deranged individual--and yet in not a few countries across the world, that many people and more die every day, from violence, from starvation, from disease. We rant on about the barbarity of suicide bombers and ponder, peripherally mystified out of the corner of our eyes, what could drive them to such heinous acts. What we really cannot grasp is how they can involve themselves so personally in the killing of innocents, how they can violate the fundamental sense of self as a member of the human community, how they can confront their own violence so directly. It is not the killing of innocents we cannot bare, but this warped selfhood that destroys itself by destroying its community. We kill innocents, but we do so mechanically, in a sanitary manner. We make vague political threats and formulate theoretical dreams of a time when "war is peace," and a bomb falls thousands of miles away. We cannot hear it. We do not see it. We are, as individuals, uninvolved. We are clean, we are innocent. We are isolated. We are the living dead who have forgotten death. We have become the madmen who press the buttons, without thought to the consequences.
I talk with people my age, and sometimes I am astounded by what we say. At work the other day, a customer was celebrating her 86th birthday with her close friends. "I hope I never live that long," said one of my coworkers. "Really!?" I asked, amazed. "You would rather die sooner than later? You don't want to live to see your grandchildren, and maybe even your great-grandchildren? You don't want to grow old with the people you love?" My coworker shrugged and said, "I just don't want to get senile." Something within me ached... The senility of youth, to want to always be young! To never want to deepen, to age, to slow down... Is there so little we love about this place, that we would rather die quickly once we have used it up, used ourselves up? We are the living dead, who have forgotten life and so have forgotten that death, too, is life. Life transformed. Life changed. We bring death to others and we wish it on ourselves, but we do not understand it. We wish death to be mere oblivion--in war, so that the dead we make cannot reproach us; and in ourselves, so that we might not lose ourselves to the flux of time.
We wish it secretly and fervently, but wishing cannot make it true.
I do not know how to talk sense into the madness we take these days for reason. I do not know how to restrain the hand that rests steadily on the button. It is not my hand. It is the invisible hand of the market, it is the hand of the "selfish gene," it is the suicidal hand of a culture that has lost sight of the value of living in its diseased and obsessive pursuit of unlimited life.
But it is not my hand.