(originally run September 14, 2001)
This is being written in the days immediately after the attacks which destroyed the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon building outside of Washington, D.C., and which resulted in as-yet-undetermined, yet certainly almost unimaginable, loss of human life. The oft-showed images on television, i.e., the crashing of commercial jetliners into the towers of the World Trade Center, and the subsequent crumbling of both towers, are almost surreal, the scenes one might expect in a special-effects science fiction or adventure movie. The fact that they are stone cold hard reality is almost unfathomable.
These acts have brought forth many stunning examples of heroism, seemingly "ordinary" people risking, and often sacrificing, their own lives, to save the lives of others. They have also brought forth many legitimate questions, such as who could have done this, and why. As this is written the pursuit of these questions is proceeding in full force, and has produced much speculation, a few facts, and, one can hope, the eventual identification of those responsible and the bringing of them to appropriate justice.
Unfortunately, these events are also bringing forth acts of fear- and hate-based retaliation and revenge. There are already news reports of acts of violence directed toward certain individuals in our society simply because of their ethnic group and/or the religious belief to which they subscribe. While the temptations to engage in this behavior may be strong, we may want to keep in mind that it is these very same types of emotions that almost certainly motivated the individuals who perpetrated Tuesday's actions.
Indeed, the destructive acts of this past Tuesday are only the latest installment in a pattern of behavior that has been an unfortunate hallmark of human history throughout its existence. That history has continuously been marked by the attacking, conquering, and destruction of one or more groups of humanity by other groups -- sometimes for no other reason than that the other group is somehow "different" -- from its earliest days thousands of years ago, right on up to the present. What has changed, of course, is the destructive power of the weapons that have been used to accomplish this destruction, from wooden clubs which allowed personal one-on-one killing, to firearms which allowed for killing at a distance, to the arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons today which can permit entire populations to be destroyed on the other side of the planet. And, as Tuesday's events demonstrated, even benign and positive technological developments, such as the airplane, can become weapons when placed in the hands of those who are so bent on destruction and so sure that they are "right" that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives. Very clearly, humanity's moral development has not kept pace with the development of its technology.
Science tells us that there is no justification whatsoever for the attitudes that have for so long been on such callous display. Biologically, we are all one species, and there is no evidence of any kind that suggests that one group of humanity, be it ethnic, cultural, religious, whatever, is somehow any "better" or "worse" than any other group of humanity. The differences that divide us are thus those that we create ourselves.
This feature has often pointed out that the Earth is one tiny planet, orbiting around a star that is only one of over a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, itself only one of a hundred billion galaxies that populate the universe. The Earth occupies no "privileged" place in that universe, and there is certainly no "privileged" part of this planet, nor any "privileged" group of people that reside upon it. Astronauts who have traveled into space, especially those who have left the Earth's immediate vicinity during the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, have commented upon how small -- and beautiful -- our planet appears from space, and have mentioned that there are no political boundaries etched upon it. Those boundaries exist only because we haven't yet escaped our barbarous past and thus continue to need to invent ways to divide ourselves from each other.
This feature has also often argued for an expanded human presence in space, and indeed there is so much out there that we could be capable of exploring and utilizing. But perhaps we need to grow up some as a species while we make preparations to do so. It would be a pathetic commentary on humanity that, as we set ourselves to move out into the space frontier, we would still find it necessary to bring our weapons -- and our hatreds and our bigotries along with us.
The planet Mars -- so often mentioned as a near-term destination for our space efforts -- can be seen shining in the southwestern skies on these mid-September evenings. Scattered throughout the nighttime sky we can see numerous stars, some of these relatively nearby to us, others much farther away. In the southwest we can find the constellation Sagittarius, and the bright glow of the Milky Way marking the distant center of our galaxy beyond it. Over in the northeast we can find the constellation of Andromeda, and within it one of the nearest and brightest of the innumerable galaxies that inhabit our universe. Let us take some time during one of these coming nights to take a look at this nighttime sky, and think about all the things that we as humanity could be capable of, if only we put our minds to it. And then let us remember the tragic events of this past Tuesday, and think about how far we still have yet to go.
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