Editors Note: This time around, I didn’t want to go with something snide and sarcastic. We’d just had a couple of bad hurricanes hit the country, the war in Iraq is getting worse and worse, and gas prices are through the roof. (And, worst of all, George W. Bush is still our president.) I thought it would be nice to write a piece that’s more optimistic than my usual stuff, so this article is just a bit warm and fuzzy.


These Are the Good Old Days

 

Some annoying issues just won’t go away: In Pennsylvania, the argument about teaching intelligent design theory has now reached the courts. At its core, this litigation concerns an unresolved question as old as man’s desire to explain life’s mystery: Is there a God?

Agnostics believe no answer is possible, because there’s no data available. Nevertheless, when the faithful pitch their position, they might want to mention what could be the most important miracle in human history — more wondrous than the parting of the Red Sea, the Red Sox winning the World Series, or any number of loaves and fishes. We baby boomers can bear witness that, since 1946, a year after the first atomic bombs were detonated, not a single person has been killed by a nuclear weapon.

I’m not talking about the fact that Muslim terrorists haven’t set off a dirty bomb somewhere, although that’s a minor miracle in its own right, given our porous borders, lack of port security, an inept administration distracted by foreign adventures, and the impossibility of making a free and open society absolutely terror-proof. The real miracle is that we and the Soviets stared at each other over the barrels of thousands of nukes for more than four decades without incinerating one another.

Since I was old enough to understand such things, I worried that the lives of everyone I knew might be snuffed out at the whim of one of the leaders of two countries that existed in perpetual cold-war hostility. Yet, we survived the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, as well as the tense 1980s, when our relationship with the Soviets bottomed out again, without a single missile being launched.

Our survival certainly isn’t the result of humility or rationality on the part of the governments involved. Consider the hubris demonstrated by two nations willing to risk the lives of every living thing on earth (except, maybe, the cockroaches) to protect their political and economic systems from each other.

Consider also the irrationality of continually adding to the nuclear arsenals when mutually assured destruction (MAD) was already ensured by the existing inventories. And what of the insanity of building bigger and better bombs after scientists — who are generally ignored by government, unless they’re developing more-advanced weaponry — determined that detonating just a small percentage of the world’s warheads would trigger a “nuclear winter” likely to bring about the death of every human being on earth?

But the fact that an intentional thermonuclear war never took place isn’t even the most unlikely aspect of this miracle. The real wonder is that it didn’t happen accidentally. For decades, fallible men on both sides waited with their fingers poised over “the button” in missile silos, submarines and circling bombers. Given the gallons of substandard vodka swilled by the average Russian soldier, and the tons of marijuana inhaled by American military personnel during the late 60s and early 70s, our survival is truly astounding.

The Soviets couldn’t build a washing machine or a television that worked. Russian-made cars were (and probably still are) virtually undrivable and unmaintainable — nobody with access to a Hyundai, or even a Yugo, would ever own one. Yet, somehow they managed to assemble a modern, integrated weapons system that worked, or at least worked well enough to prevent the launching of an accidental Armageddon.

I sleep a lot better now than I did in the sixth grade, when I worried I might die in my bed from the nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over our collective head. That we made it through unscathed is a miracle worth thanking someone for — I’m just not sure whom.*

So when someone starts going on about how we’re living in the “worst of times,” as Dickens might have put it, point out that “the good old days” began in 1991, when the Soviet Union expired, taking with it the constant threat of total annihilation. That we’re menaced by the prospect of a 9/11-size disaster is awful, as is the threat that terrorists might one day detonate a stolen Soviet suitcase bomb. However, relatively speaking, things could be (and have been) a whole lot worse.

That the U.S. hasn’t been hit a second time by Islamic fanatics is a small miracle. And, of course, it’s an incomplete one, because such an event could happen at any time. But the major miracle is that we’re still here in these better times to worry about the lesser terrors that frighten us now … although it would be nice if there weren’t so many hurricanes … and gas weren’t so expensive. Maybe an intelligent designer can do something about that.


*Editor’s Footnote: I’m guessing most of you Republicans out there know exactly whom to thank for everything and anything good that might have happened during the 20th century — from the end of the Cold War and the winning of the Second World War to the invention of the computer and the demise of disco music — the greatest American ever to stride into the sunset: Ronald Reagan. But try to keep that obnoxious idea to yourselves.

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