(originally run December 28, 2001)
Over the past few months this author has had the pleasure of engaging in an e-mail conversation with the noted science and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. This British-born resident of Sri Lanka has had a notable career filled with numerous achievements -- among these being the development of the concept of geosynchronous communications satellites -- but is probably best known among the general public as having written the screenplay for the 1968 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are now nearing the end of "Clarke's year," of course, and comparisons between Clarke's vision from the 1960s and the current reality are inevitable.
As the setting for his story Clarke's choice of the year 2001 the first year of a new millennium of human history -- was presumably symbolic, replete with the bright promise engendered by new beginnings. The reality of 2001, on the other hand, has been very much the opposite, and in the minds of many of us the current year has been one of the darkest of recent human memory.
Overshadowing all the events of this past year were the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11. These acts, perpetrated by individuals under the fervor of religious beliefs so extreme that suicide and mass destruction were not only justified but even encouraged, resulted in the death toll of thousands of innocent lives and almost incalculable property damage. The U.S., and the world, will be reeling from the aftermath of these events for at least the immediately foreseeable future.
A part of this aftermath has been the U.S.-initiated military action in Afghanistan. While the merits of and justification for this activity are topics for valid debate, we should keep in mind that, according to numerous accounts in the foreign press, the number of Afghan civilians who have been killed as a direct result of the military activity in that country -- human beings who had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and who were every bit as innocent as those who perished on that horrible day -- is now higher than the number of those whose lives were taken during the attacks themselves. (But does anyone care?)
Meanwhile, war continues to blossom elsewhere in the world. The seemingly never-ending conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians continues to escalate, with each new day bringing reports of more innocent civilians (of both sides) being killed. At this writing the nations of India and Pakistan -- both of whom have developed and tested nuclear weapons -- stand at the brink of open warfare. Long-standing religious and ethnic hatreds, often goaded by the same type of religious extremism which led to the September 11 attacks, erupt into violence around the globe on almost a daily basis.
For those like this author who like to envision a future like that Clarke depicted where humanity is at peace and is traveling out into the universe, the prospects of such a future's eventually coming to pass have never appeared to be bleaker. What is even more distressing is that the reasons for this are so pointless. After all, over the past few decades we've learned that our Earth orbits a star which is only one of approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe a number which, to put into perspective, is equivalent to the number of square millimeters on the combined surface area of twenty planets the size of Earth. The idea that a divine intelligence would tell the members of one small group of people on this tiny insignificant planet that they are "superior" to some other group, and should thus commit murder of that other group, is so ridiculously absurd as to be beyond all rational discussion. And yet the hatred, and the killing, in the name of such a divine intelligence has gone on for centuries and, as recent and current events all too clearly demonstrate, continues today.
Is there any hope for us? There do appear to be some glimmers here and there. There were those people who risked, and in many cases sacrificed, their lives in order to rescue others on the day of the attacks. This author, like many other Americans, has received numerous expressions of sympathy and solidarity from friends and colleagues around the globe in the wake of September 11 -- including, this author specifically points out, from several of his scientific colleagues in Iran. Around the world there is a growing awareness that the future of humanity and the stewardship of our planet are our own responsibility, and that if we are to achieve a future even remotely like that in this author's visions, then the choice to act is ours, and the time to act is now.
This is being written as this author hears the happy sounds of his sons enjoying their holiday presents -- an experience denied to the children unfortunate enough to live in countries racked by today's wars. For their sake, and for the sake of all children, of all races, religions, and nationalities around the world, let us resolve in this forthcoming year to begin building a future that offers them the promise of a world without war and hatred, and that gives them the opportunity to pursue a vision like that of this author if they so choose. In so doing, perhaps we can once and for all relegate the barbarities that have led to all the horrors of this past year, and all previous years, to the garbage pits of history where they belong. Our work is certainly cut out for us, but to paraphrase -- slightly -- the ending of a famous poem by Robert Frost:
But we have promises to keep,
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep.
Happy 2002, everyone.
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