This column was published shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City. It is revisited here because over four years later our vision has separated into two eyes: in one, nothing has changed—in the other everything has changed, forever.
There is a chilling moment at the end of David Lean's classic, The Bridge On The River Kwai, when the prison-camp doctor (James Donald) surveying the carnage in the river bed below him, moans breathlessly: "Madness......... Madness!" The dark, frozen look in his eyes says it all. And in the ruins of the past few weeks, those words of the screenwriters (the blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson) ... says it all!
Madness fueled by hypocrisy. Americans are terrorized, outraged, enraged. This from a society that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians for reasons that are murky at best. Only to repeat the horror 25 years later with the murder of hundreds of thousands, millions of Vietnamese people in the name of Americanocracy, in a toilet of self-righteous lies. With insane irony, worthy of the truth of the prophet, Lenny Bruce, there is a scene in New York on September 12th, broadcast on all the television networks – a bewildered, horrified, tearful Fire Captain says to the camera that he served three tours of duty in Vietnam, but he never saw anything as horrible as this. Did he not see the ancient city of Hue in Vietnam after he nearly shattered it ?
To be sure, what happened in New York and Washington was terrible, painful, a ghastly nightmare. It shook the security that is the peace and beauty of America like an earthquake. And it shook the love and the guilt-ridden hate of people all over the world because, after all, America is the Promised Land, the epitome of civilized evolution, the best we have to date for individual freedom. Isn't it? What?
To be sure, there has been worse. The Nazi Holocaust is still unfathomable and may remain so as a portrait of a civilized species thrilled with its own terror. It continues… the roots of the Nazi disease that spread into the Middle East during and after World War II as it spurred, supported and nurtured Middle Eastern violence. It continues, today. But what makes September 11th so deafening, so sleepless… is the sudden awareness that there are people, thousands of people who are willing to destroy their lives to destroy what they fear, what they don't understand. Not true in Nazi Germany, or Japan, or ancient Rome.
As America's jaunty president, Harry Truman, once said: it is almost impossible to stop anyone who is willing to give up their life to kill you. It's that frightening thought that sits on the horizon.
So what must we do? The challenge of True Believers, of Fundamentalism, all Fundamentalism, Christian, Jewish, Islamic… is its mindless, degrading nostalgia for the "better" way that things were. The Islamic fundamentalists, in particular, raise the challenge of turning the clock back a thousand years, of wiping out Da Vinci and algebra and Shakespeare and cyberspace and women and baseball. So it is time, in the only time that remains… for America to manifest its destiny, to roll its epitomized culture over the surface of this planet and say: you want our hope, our medicine, our jazz, our rock&roll, our Walt Disney, our hope… then join our democracy and live by it. It is, after all, the best that has ever been. Isn't it? What?
With no humility, I am also a fundamentalist. I have a mindless, degrading nostalgia for the way things never were but could be. My "prophet" lives in the mind but no longer the body of Gerard K. O'Neill, a brilliant, important, pragmatic scientist, theorist, visionary, a writer of exceptional sensitivity and clarity. He not only showed us what we must do, he showed us how to do it. He said – and I paraphrase as crudely as possible – It is time to get the hell off this planet!
Attempting to salvage this planet and its environment is an ultimate lesson in futility. Along with the never-ending onslaught of corporate greed and political hypocrisy (which from Day 1 has been exercised by a few at the expense of the many), is the cold, wide-eyed, staring fact that the human species crossed a point of no return 100's of years ago when our population began a relentless exponential march of growth far outdistancing the resources of this planet. We cannot go back. And if we cannot control our head-in-the-sand fear of the future by spending our time and energy to move on into the riches "out there" instead of wasting our time and energy squeezing the last drops of oil from the last skeletons of rocks "down here", the meek and the muck will indeed inherit the Earth.
Add this to the gloom. These astonishing events in our evolution: One – we have achieved the ability with weapons and industry to self-destruct, to wipe ourselves and our history off the canvas. Two – We have created huge groups of people who are adamantly willing to use that ability, those weapons, that industry, with all the mindless fervor that religious tyranny can provide.
Echo: G.K. O'Neill – It is time!
I hope there is enough left.