Familiar disasters, unfamiliar hopes

It’s a human pattern we’re reminded of each time there’s an accident on a major highway. The “rubberneckers” slow down to be sure they see the smashed metal and glass and possibly some puddles of blood. Tomorrow’s newspapers will label the event a “tragedy,” and it does, in its own way, carry us back to the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

When we witness the disasters that sometimes befall other people – even on a stage in symbolic form – we experience a whole range of feelings. One of them is relief – because, after all, it didn’t happen to us. Two of them were named by Aristotle: pity (also translatable as “empathy”) and terror (for if human life is in that kind of danger, we have to consider our personal vulnerability to the same kind of an event).

But another more social reaction exists that is harder to identify and name. Once we have become part of a spectatorial group, which is bound together by its contemplation of a really horrid occurrence, we also experience a sense of comfort and a drop in our fears of isolation and alienation. Our car moves on and a voice from the back seat observes: “Did you see that?” All of those in the car shake their heads in unison. “God,” breathes one of those enclosed in the mobile theater, “that’s just the worst thing in the world.”

We’re all feeling it at the same time: a heightened awareness of our shared humanity. An understanding of what a dangerous place the world can be has gripped us at a single moment. Even people who never took a course in literature, art or religion freely engage in a ritual that seems like the very definition of modern life.

All of which may help to explain some of the difficulties we have getting used to the idea of living in a new millennium. It’s easy enough to criticize the one that has been running its course from 1000 A.D. to 2000 A.D. Yes, it saw the birth of a higher level of religious ideals. But yes, it also saw a long chain of (partly resulting) disasters – the Roman Empire, on its frontiers, was not a benevolent institution. The Crusades, which were launched soon after the present millennium began, inflicted countless miseries, as European barons sought to gain control over the alleged tomb where the risen Christ briefly lay.

Western Europe’s conquest of the Americas wreaked a level of depopulation on their native inhabitants that still has the capacity to trouble our minds. And as we approach and pass through the 20th century, the union of industrialization with warfare and murder has produced scenes even Homer and Sophocles never imagined – scenes, moreover, that have formed a union of their own with our occasional feelings of depression and despair.

But this millennial saga of disaster is one that we have learned to feel at home with. References to the Holocaust, for example, when delivered by columnists and orators, often are deployed in order to elicit “automatic assent.” Like the scrambled heap of steel and flesh by the side of the highway, they form scripture of a certain kind, binding us together as human beings.

Now a new millennium approaches. All of the head-shaking rituals of familiar discourse are about to become things of the past. “Adolf Hitler? Was he before or after Napoleon?” For those who become senior citizens after the year 2000 has rolled around, hints of the Biblical patriarch or matriarch will become almost inevitable. “Can you imagine? He/she was born before computers!”

Losing our disastrous past, which always gave us opportunities for conversation, is hard enough. Harder still is the act of trying to generate feelings of hope about the millennium from 2000 A.D. to 3000 A.D. Haven’t ridiculous hopes been identified with ridiculous figures like Karl Marx or ridiculous murderers like Joseph Stalin? Who would be brave enough today to actually stand up in front of an audience and declare that a better – rather than worse – future lies ahead? But try looking at the challenge a bit differently. One of the things that has happened to life on Planet Earth since the implosion of the Soviet Union is we have begun to see it as a managerial challenge – an engine in constant need of “tuning.” Like a roving committee supported by technical staffs, our statespersons roam the globe in quest of problems that need solutions.

Meanwhile, even the most astronomical points of high finance are debated in our daily media in ways that turn an industrialized population into a committee of the whole. The new system works in uneven ways, of course, and often is hampered by the traditions of national sovereignty. But it has worked surprisingly well, at least in the 1990s. Gone forever is the day when only a direct military threat could bring nations to cooperate with each other.

And there is hope, too, in the unprecedented assumptions made possible by the arrival of the computer. It’s no longer impossible to imagine that every single human being could have his or her computer “file,” which monitors his or her overall well-being. Keeping track of our planet’s people might well become the first stage of helping those in need – without the creation of a monstrous planetary bureaucracy.

Such a development, in turn, would suggest that our first millennium could never institutionalize its religious ideals – which our second millennium finally did.

There is reason for hope. Some of the worst stuff in human history is just about to move into the past. Perhaps we can finally learn how not to stop apologizing for it. The right way to show we’re sorry for what our ancestors did or didn’t do is to be absolutely splendid toward our biological and spiritual children.

-The writer is president and professor of public administration of The George Washington University.

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