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The philosopher Krishnamurti once asserted that we are each totally responsible for the whole world. Global climate change, among other issues, has made this provocation seem more and more undeniable. It is impossible to shift elsewhere the responsibility we each bear for our own environmental footprint. There is no way not to make a difference.
The amount of psychic energy that Americans have invested in our current presidential race suggests that citizens feel so weighed down by the burden of our multiple challenges that we invest our preferred candidates with magical powers. We pledge our allegiance to whatever authoritative, or authoritarian, parent figure we assume can best tackle threats too large and amorphous for any one of us to get our arms around.
When Senator Sanders makes it an explicit theme of his campaign that he cannot achieve a political revolution alone, he’s acknowledging a condition of interdependence and shared responsibility that is not only domestic but also global—a new and unavoidable level of civic engagement. While his major issue has been the need for greater citizen involvement in fighting income inequality, other challenges that candidates have addressed more reluctantly also require a different level of participation. More than half a century ago we came within a hairbreadth of annihilation as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To some extent the U.S. and Russia have gradually taken its lessons to heart, with improved communication between their leaders and welcome cutbacks from the grotesque numbers of warheads that had been deployed on both sides.
Now India and Pakistan have chosen to ignore the grave lessons of the Cuban near-disaster of 1962. Unable to resolve a conflict over territory in Kashmir extending back to the partition of the two nations in the late 1940s, a conflict that has already resulted in three wars, Pakistan has deployed tactical nuclear weapons on their border with India. These weapons are under the control not of the head of state, but of local commanders. Should the region slide into a nuclear war and subsequent nuclear winter, it would affect the entire earth. Like it or not, ground zero is now everywhere. “Over there” has become “here.”
Broad anthropological studies and world gatherings of scientists (see the 1986 UNESCO Seville Statement) have asserted that we humans are not doomed by our biology to behave violently. Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature presents a hopeful spectrum of global trends toward less violence and war. Pinker asserts that the present moment is one of the most peaceful eras in all of history. Sadly, this must still be qualified by the phrase “relatively speaking.” Our dark side certainly shows itself too.
Indeed, a recent issue of the New Yorker carries a riveting report on the heroic efforts of activists to smuggle tons of paper records out of the offices of Assad’s security services, records which document with Nazi-like bureaucratic zeal the horrific war crimes of the Syrian regime. Human cruelty, as the survivors of Assad’s torture chambers attest, can become truly devilish in its creativity. In the South Sudan, tribesmen have been using the rape of children, including infants, as a weapon of war. The sadism of Sudanese soldiers, the keepers of Abu Ghraib, or the Assad functionaries who blowtorch and castrate dissidents testify to the distance we have yet to travel if our small planet is to become a place where each is responsible for all and love really does trump hate.
Torture and rape are unbearable enough, but a nuclear war anywhere could throw billions of people into the misery of worldwide starvation. It is a dangerous illusion to assume that our political leaders and foreign policy experts will magically prevent apocalypse—that the generals on the front lines in Pakistan or anywhere else are sufficiently trained and disciplined never to fall into fatal error. With each further deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons, weapons that the United States and other nuclear powers are also developing, the temptation grows to cross the nuclear threshold. As Lao Tzu said, “if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” All nations share an interest in stepping back from a catastrophe where any “victory” is a mirage that briefly disguises defeat for all.
One presidential candidate, until he changed his mind after a couple of days of negative feedback, rashly proposed that Japan and South Korea be encouraged to become new members of the nuclear club. And even as President Obama convened an international conference to discuss the sequester of fissile materials against terrorists, he has also quietly agreed to an obscenely expensive long-term renewal of U.S. nuclear weapons systems. Instead, our country could still set an example for India and Pakistan, helping them understand how dangerous it would be if they repeated the same folly into which we drifted during the Missile Crisis of 1962. Setting an example demands that citizens become more engaged with foreign policy, acknowledge that there is good and evil in all of us, and bear the truth that ground zero is everywhere on one small planet.