By Louis René Beres
Once each year, on my birthday, I look closely in the mirror, much more closely than on ordinary days. Each year, I grow more apprehensive, of the unavoidable ebbing away of life, of the lingering loneliness that has come ever so incrementally with the death of others, of the gnawing obligation as a husband, father and grandfather to stay alive myself, and of the utterly certain knowledge that there is nothing I can ever do to meet this “responsibility.”
In the final analysis, of course, all things move in the midst of death. Since my last birthday, far too many have continued to reveal, with an exquisite clarity, the delicate veneer of “civilization.” Recalling William Golding’s shipwrecked schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, I still discover that behind this veneer lurks an insistently primal barbarism. Remembering, too, the seemingly endless litany of terror attacks, wars, and genocides, it becomes difficult to deny that we humans continue to abundantly scandalize our own creation.
How shall it all end? As a professor, I am obliged to be analytic. Human beings, after all, have lived on Earth for about eight hundred lifetimes, most of which have been spent in caves. It should come as no surprise that for most of the more than seven billion people now on earth that hunger, poverty, violence, and cruelty are the irremediably natural state of affairs. Further, in an abysmal irony, a huge portion of humankind’s precious resources, financial and intellectual, will remain steadfastly earmarked for new and expanded forms of imposed suffering.
Everywhere, new enemies arise. Now, perhaps, we must worry about opening up wider theatres of conflict. How much treasure, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many centuries of learning have been ransacked to usher in a grotesque carnival of chemical, biological or nuclear war?
Frightened by the relentless fact of individual mortality, and by the desperate need to belong, even at the cost of killing “outsiders,” how much longer can those who “love death” project their private apprehensions on to politics? Will it ever be understood that certain states and insurgents, even those endowed with assorted weapons of mass destruction, could become collective suicide-bombers?
There have been ‘suicide-states’ before. Why not, soon, a nuclear ‘suicide-state’?
I don’t know the answers. I want to know why so many persons have progressed so little as a species — at least from the critical standpoint of indispensable empathy and coexistence — and what have I to gain from pushing on personally. After all, we continue in what looks very much like a permanently murderous universe.
Is there really any defensible reason for hope?
In world politics, the corpse has always been in fashion. Today, a mere twelve years after the close of a century that can aptly be described as the Age of Atrocity, whole nations of corpses could quickly become the rage.
Bob Dylan once sang, “the executioner’s face is well-hidden.” As for the proverbial “good people,” their ritual silence remains absolutely vital to all that would madden and torment. Indeed, for most, any steadily expanding global clash of civilizations is now the farthest thing from their minds.
Plus ça change… Nothing primal really changes. The dinosaurs had ruled this once beautiful planet for millions of years, far longer than the brief tenure of our own fragile species. Now they are long gone, having left behind only their crushed bones.
What shall we leave? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage and Rome, ground to dust, and burned into oblivion. Is this what it’s all for?
Hope should remain; of this I am certain. But it must sing softly in a prudent undertone. The visible Earth is made of ashes. Through obscure depths of history, we must struggle to make out the phantoms of great ships of state, and to learn that the disasters that sent them down were quite unavoidably of our affair.
We must continue to study history, but not in an atmosphere of contrived heroism and false greatness. To grasp the true lessons of history, and therefore of long life, we must first come to despise such a sullied atmosphere. The barbarians are not all outside the gates; some are sequestered well within the city. These include not only the hidden and sinister fomenters of social and political violence, but also the legions of ordinary and good citizens, who gleefully revile real learning, and loathe inclination to serious thought.
The problem of identifying meaning on an endangered planet and of enduring in an unendurable world is a problem I can never solve. Yet I want to go on, to hang on by my fingernails if necessary: to feel, to learn, to help, to love, to grasp life, amid all of its routine flirtations with lifelessness, in order simply to be. Even on planets about to rendezvous with dreadfully new forms of terrorism, genocide, and war — at twilight, worn and almost defeated — life must be defended and affirmed.
That’s why, when I looked so closely on my last birthday, the mirror reflected not only fear and trembling, but also identity, will, and determination.
Next year, if all goes well, I will look again.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on security issues and counterterrorism. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of ten major books dealing with nuclear war and terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1987), an early award-winning book on nuclear terror. Professor Beres’ columns appear regularly in several major American and foreign newspapers, and many magazines. He is a regular contributor to OUP Blog.