Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nuclear Death Row

I wrote this after waking from a terrifying dream. It has little do with birding per se but a lot to do with the world, which is why I posted it on LinkedIn and am reprinting it here because, well, it's mine anyway.

Last night I had a strange dream. It was inspired by the recent massacre in Paris, the revelation a bomb strong enough to blow a passenger jet out of the sky could fit in a soda can, and what I read in a 20-year-old essay by evolutionary biologist and prolific columnist (for Natural History magazine and others) Stephen Jay Gould.

In my dream, my husband and I were vacationing on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts - as we were recently. Somewhere in the world terrorists (let’s call them the Islamic State, which goes under a variety of names but here I’ll call it ISIL) detonated an atomic bomb powerful enough to obliterate the target and thrown enough debris into the sky to blacken it.

This toxic cloud was pushed east quickly on the prevailing winds. In each nation the ensuing darkness and the chemicals started killing people in huge numbers.

Being on one of the easternmost parts of the United States, I watched the reports of the inevitable death coming and felt helpless, as though I was on Death Row.

Worse, as the news reports continued nonstop, mayhem ensued.

Who cares about deadlines when we’re all gonna die anyway? Who cares about rule of law? Who cares about money? Just smash a window, take what you want. You don’t like that black guy? Forget social media, get a gun and shoot him. Blow up the mosques. Hang the Jews. Who cares?

Americans rampaged in the streets. And there was nothing the President of the United States, the politicians agitating to replace him, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York City police department or anyone else could do about it. Death was coming. This is when I woke up.

Where does Stephen Jay Gould come in?

I am reading his 1995 collection of essays, “Dinosaur in a Haystack.” One includes a 1994 account of the comet that hit Jupiter ago, creating huge craters and throwing up thick clouds of the gases from within that quickly encircled the planet. Gould ties these events to the then-radical theory dinosaurs were obliterated from the face of the Earth by a huge asteroid that hit the planet, blackening the skies.

Gould even asked the main author of this theory, Luis Alvarez (who won a Nobel Prize for physics and worked on the atomic bomb), how that could happen. He was told, and I quote from the book, “a bolide six miles in diameter would strike the earth with ten thousand times the megatonnage of all the earth’s nuclear weapons combined.”

That must’ve been some comet. The comet fragment that exploded 28,000 feet above Siberia in 1908, known as the Tunguska event, flattened 1,000 square miles of forest, Gould wrote. Luckily, it was in an unpopulated area.

The A-bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 did hit populated areas, causing death and destruction. The bombs ended that part of World War II but started the Nuclear Age.  We’re still dealing with the fallout 70 years later.

Could a terrorist group create an mega-ton A-bomb in a can? Maybe not now. But what if the geniuses who shrunk a computer to fit in a wristwatch were paid enough to develop one?

Politicians in both U.S. parties have no problem screaming for nuclear devastation of ISIL. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age” is a common theme in social media. Bombing civilian women and children along with the terrorist cells doesn’t seem to be a problem. “Nuke them all!” one normally rational friend said of al-Queda and all Muslims after the 9/11 bombings in 2001.

Gould died of cancer in 2002. He lived to see the change of decade, millennium and the making of war that could put all of us on nuclear Death Row at a moment’s notice. Nations don’t make war anymore, people - with the ideology, followers and especially the money and technology - do. Can they be stopped? I don’t know but the prognosis isn’t good.

In 1950, the folk singer Ed McCurdy wrote “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” a pro-peace song in which the world’s leaders came together and agreed to “put an end to war.”

A nice sentiment, but my strange dream shows nothing has changed.

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