IN THE AGE OF ATROCITY
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
as if it were something that arose
totally outside yourself.
Once each year, on
my birthday, I look closely in the mirror, much more closely
than on ordinary days. Each year, I grow more apprehensive,
of the unavoidable ebbing away of life, of the lingering loneliness
that has come ever so incrementally with the death of others,
of the gnawing obligation as a husband, father and grandfather
to stay alive myself, and of the utterly certain knowledge that
there is nothing I can ever do to meet this “responsibility.”
the final analysis, of course, all things move in the midst
of death. Since my last birthday, far too many have continued
to reveal, with an exquisite clarity, the delicate veneer of
“civilization.” Recalling William Golding’s
shipwrecked schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, I still
discover that behind this veneer lurks an insistently primal
barbarism. Remembering, too, the seemingly endless litany of
terror attacks, wars, and genocides, it becomes difficult to
deny that we humans continue to abundantly scandalize our own
shall it all end? As a professor, I am obliged to be analytic.
Human beings, after all, have lived on Earth for about eight
hundred lifetimes, most of which have been spent in caves. It
should come as no surprise that for most of the more than seven
billion people now on earth that hunger, poverty, violence,
and cruelty are the irremediably natural state of affairs. Further,
in an abysmal irony, a huge portion of humankind’s precious
resources, financial and intellectual, will remain steadfastly
earmarked for new and expanded forms of imposed suffering.
new enemies arise. Now, perhaps, we must worry about opening
up wider theatres of conflict. How much treasure, how much science,
how much labor and planning, how many centuries of learning
have been ransacked to usher in a grotesque carnival of chemical,
biological or nuclear war?
by the relentless fact of individual mortality, and by the desperate
need to belong, even at the cost of killing “outsiders,”
how much longer can those who “love death” project
their private apprehensions on to politics? Will it ever be
understood that certain states and insurgents, even those endowed
with assorted weapons of mass destruction, could become collective
have been ‘suicide-states’ before. Why not, soon,
a nuclear ‘suicide-state’?
know the answers. I want to know why so many persons have progressed
so little as a species — at least from the critical standpoint
of indispensable empathy and coexistence — and what have
I to gain from pushing on personally. After all, we continue
in what looks very much like a permanently murderous universe.
there really any defensible reason for hope?
world politics, the corpse has always been in fashion. Today,
a mere twelve years after the close of a century that can aptly
be described as the Age of Atrocity, whole nations of corpses
could quickly become the rage.
Dylan once sang, “the executioner’s face is well-hidden.”
As for the proverbial “good people,” their ritual
silence remains absolutely vital to all that would madden and
torment. Indeed, for most, any steadily expanding global clash
of civilizations is now the farthest thing from their minds.
ça change . . . Nothing primal really changes. The
dinosaurs had ruled this once beautiful planet for millions
of years, far longer than the brief tenure of our own fragile
species. Now they are long gone, having left behind only their
shall we leave? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage and
Rome, ground to dust, and burned into oblivion. Is this what
it’s all for?
should remain; of this I am certain. But it must sing softly
in a prudent undertone. The visible Earth is made of ashes.
Through obscure depths of history, we must struggle to make
out the phantoms of great ships of state, and to learn that
the disasters that sent them down were quite unavoidably of
must continue to study history, but not in an atmosphere of
contrived heroism and false greatness. To grasp the true lessons
of history, and therefore of long life, we must first come to
despise such a sullied atmosphere. The barbarians are not all
outside the gates; some are sequestered well within the city.
These include not only the hidden and sinister fomenters of
social and political violence, but also the legions of ordinary
and good citizens, who gleefully revile real learning, and loathe
inclination to serious thought.
problem of identifying meaning on an endangered planet and of
enduring in an unendurable world is a problem I can never solve.
Yet I want to go on, to hang on by my fingernails if necessary:
to feel, to learn, to help, to love, to grasp life, amid all
of its routine flirtations with lifelessness, in order simply
to be. Even on planets about to rendezvous with dreadfully new
forms of terrorism, genocide, and war — at twilight, worn
and almost defeated — life must be defended and affirmed.
why, when I looked so closely on my last birthday, the mirror
reflected not only fear and trembling, but also identity, will,
year, if all goes well, I will look again.