THE END OF NUCLEAR TERROR
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
For decades we have lived with the terror that our carefully nurtured civilization might come to an end in an angry instant of annihilation. Then, around 1990, the grinning death's head of nuclear terror began to fade away, the shroud of apocalypse lifted from the planet, but for a reason few predicted.
Since World War II we've mastered the power to obliterate our enemies. Our knowledge was high-tech, but our attitudes were stone-age. Our minds grew, but our hearts didn't. Prejudice, hatred and fanaticism flamed unchecked. We were children playing with loaded guns. We knew we couldn't live forever that way: one misstep, one computer glitch, and all we'd built would become charcoal.
So people debated the options. Should we plan a sneak attack and get them before they get us? Should we erect a defensive umbrella that might stop incoming warheads? Should we disarm unilaterally? Perhaps diplomacy would work; after all, we could be reasonable. Sages spoke up, preaching tolerance, but we'd turn on them: "Shaddap!" Leaders carved out treaties but the weaponry increased. An air of hopelessness filtered into our affairs. Children grew up with fetishes: Halloween, heavy metal and horror flicks. We were like victims of some outside force, yet we had created that force. There seemed no way out.
Suddenly, within the last several years, the danger has begun to pass. An unforseen leader emerged in Russia - Michael Gorbachov - a man with common sense, compassion, and a burning desire to lift from his people the oppressive burden of totalitarian rule. His efforts removed much of the danger from between the superpowers. Gorbachov won the Nobel Prize for Peace. (His fellow Russians revile him, but that's a different story.) It was as if a miracle has saved us from ourselves.
No miracle. Gorbachov's acts were courageous, but his genius was in reading the writing on the wall. It was almost inevitable, if you think about it. Technology made possible weapons of mass destruction. And technology has made possible the ending of the threat. This is not a moral victory; it is a scientific one.
Our arsenals have grown in sophistication and deadly power over the decades. It's been an impressive parade, if you're into that sort of thing. And of course no one ever found a truly workable defense against those weapons, Star Wars buffs notwithstanding. So no one thought a technological fix would be possible.
Meanwhile humans invented jet planes, computers, fax machines, e-mail, worldwide phone service, satellite-tv feeds and next-day parcel delivery. We've vastly increased shipping, and trade between nations has blossomed. Countries are linked as never before. You can fax your clients in Singapore, e-mail the boss in Amsterdam, or take an overnight to Santiago. An economic downturn in the Far East hurts manufacturers in America. When the Hong Kong market crashes, we get the fender. The price of wheat in Argentina has a big impact on Canadian growers. Oil makes strange bedfellows of Muslim and Christian nations. We wouldn't think of using our military against Japan or Germany: it would be like shooting ourselves in the foot. Not with our brokers monitoring the Tokyo Stock Exchange every night. Not with Germans heavily invested in American film and tv studios. Not with our apples and luxury cars selling in Japan and reducing our trade deficit. We can't afford war no more.
In a free society, technology can advance unhindered. In the communist countries, technological growth was stymied. They slipped further behind the west with each year, until they were little better off than many third-world nations. If they didn't join the western system they'd sink to the bottom like the Potemkin on a very stormy day.
Gorbachov saw this. He knew the Soviets could no longer afford those favorite Russian pastimes, paranoia and repression. He knew the planned economy wouldn't respond to the ever-growing challenge of technological advance. He knew the future was in interconnectedness, and he wanted to get plugged in. To survive, the Soviets had to join the rest of the world.
Technology overtook events. The world is becoming interlinked by technical wonders that make total war obsolete. The other guys are no longer our enemies, they're our markets. The same ingenuity that created the H-bomb and brought us to the brink of doom has now given us the tools to do business worldwide, so that a nuclear exchange would do the unthinkable: we'd shoot our customers!
And who made this possible? We did. We humans. We made the inventions. We interlinked the planet. Not with appeals to virtue, not with calls to lay down arms; we weren't that interested. But new inventions? New things to sell overseas? That sounds like fun! So we interlinked societies - searching for trading partners - and accidentally invented the best shield against nuclear war.
We're still angry, greedy folk; there are a lot of ways we can still screw the pooch, as they say. We're not out of the woods yet. But there's a path to the clearing, and we carved that path. Gorbachov's achievement was monumental, a bright light of common sense and humanity, burning hotly. But we lit that light ourselves, all of us, with the high-tech, connected world we've built over the past decades.
Okay, we didn't mean to. It was an accident.
So what? We did it, let's take it.
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