The apocalypse sirens are screaming again. Loudly. And as much as we try to scoff or laugh at them, they are difficult to ignore. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the television, talk to your neighbor, you will find the world is ending – war, dirty water, nuclear weapons, “The Bachelorette.” Any time now, the seas will boil and retch, or at the very least there will metal detectors at our PTA meetings.
And while all these things are indeed troublesome, I must say that I am positively whelmed. If the world is about to fall apart now, it has been for hundreds of years. From the Great Pestilence to the Nuclear Age, populations have articulated their epochs as if they are teetering on the edge, nearer the end than the beginning. We snicker now at the self-flagellation-as-penance of post-plague Italians or suburban American families with bomb shelters in the 1950s, but those people represent very real, if exaggerated, segments of the societies in which they lived. One need only to read a few comic books from the 1950s to sense that decade’s anxiety.
Periods like these have led variously to unfettered sexual promiscuity, war, dictators, revolution. But whatever they have wrought, they have reappeared year after year on every continent. I imagine there are psychological explanations for this tendency, the urge to turn the present into our very own doomsday, but not being of that persuasion, I cannot begin to speculate. Suffice to say, humans have felt Armageddon’s presence for centuries.
And so again we have entered such a period. In the 18 months since Sept. 11, we Americans have moved beyond FOX 2 Problem Solvers (Is your mechanic siphoning off your gasoline?!) to Fox News’ grim queries (Does your washing machine support terrorism?!). Waiting out the commercial break doesn’t just save you money or a few pounds any more, it will save your life.
Sadly, these notions aren’t exclusively found on television news sets. They flutter off the tongues of our neighbors, my waiter last week, our classmates.
I can’t help but believe that this inflated anxiety and the urgency that it instills in us causes us to act rashly. It encourages us to eschew patience and rationality for instantly gratifying solutions. Nowhere is this outlook more detrimental than in the current march toward war in Iraq.
Viewing the present as if we are on the brink often precludes us from taking a long view of our present problems. While war in Iraq may seem the only way to ensure our security, the reprecussions of a bungled operation would only lead us down roads that seem even more apocalyptic and anxious – an increase in the already broad-based zealous anti-American sentiment around the world, more terrorist attacks, a more acutely live-wire Middle East.
Today’s warhawks pay endless lip service to posterity. President Bush in September: “We owe it to future generations to deal with (the situation in Iraq).” And warned British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January: “The consequences of our weakness will haunt future generations.” These are nice things to say, and effective. Nobody wants to be complicit in the haunting of their grandchildren.
But we have seen in Panama, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc., that the United States is simply not committed to “nation-building.” History has shown that when we fear the worst, we react knee-jerkedly, with little appreciation for either history or consequence. Afraid of communism? Send in the military. Think alcohol is poisoning society? Amend the Constitution to make it illegal. But for the love of God, whatever you do, be quick about it.
The state of global affairs is indeed worrisome, frightening even. But there is much to be optimistic about – an increasingly politicized populace, an invigorated anti-war movement. In communities across the country, organizations dedicated to combating poverty and inequality.
Unfortunately, the culture in which we live – sensational and urgent to say the least – inclines us to believe that going to war in Iraq is both necessary and incontrovertible. But history tells us otherwise. We will not be swept away by blood and bile if we do not use military force in Iraq. The death knell is not tolling. We are further from the brink than many of us believe.
Honkala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.