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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

August 9, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 19




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy Time and Again

By Pat Marrin

One of the advantages of a shared driveway is frequent communication with our next-door neighbors, a young couple whose two small children have enlivened our lives immeasurably. Emme, almost three, and Quinn, 9 months, use the driveway for their blue plastic wading pool, to park an assortment of strollers, wagons and riding toys and, when Emme is not wielding the garden hose, for her elaborate chalk drawings.

Last Saturday Quinn had just learned to crawl, an event covered by wagering in both our households, and he was resting in his mother's arms while we adults puzzled over the fact that 59 years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. I remarked on the disturbing juxtaposition of such an event to the annual liturgical observance of the feast of the Transfiguration, especially with its Gospel account of the glorified Jesus revealed in a refulgence of brilliant white light. The military's penchant for turning to the theological lexicon for superlatives had begun earlier in naming the project to develop the new, ultimate weapon the "Trinity" project. "It seems hard to believe that our country was the first on to actually use an atomic weapon," she said.

The first bomb was named "Little Boy," and it would be followed three days later by an even bigger device dubbed "Fat Man," dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Altogether, the two bombings killed an estimated 110,000 Japanese citizens and injured another 130,000. By 1950, another 230,000 Japanese had died from injuries or radiation. Though the two cities were nominally military targets, the overwhelming majority of the casualties were civilian. By 1955, thousands more were still developing cancers, among them 12-year-old Sadako Sasaki, now known to millions of school children around the world as the little girl who tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes before her death.

I offered the conventional view that such a terrible deed was only possible within the logic of an historical context in which some 50 million people had already been killed in the second World War. Science had produced a weapon of unimaginable destructive power, the military saw it as a way to win the war, avoid the need for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, and President Truman, who knew firsthand the terrible cost of war, consented to the use of the bomb as a way to save lives, and to send a signal to the Soviets about curbing their expansionist appetites. We know now that it was the beginning of an era of greater and greater destruction in every war and the beginning of the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

It is a sobering meditation, and any attempt to seal it inside the mentality of an era, the logic of the moment when decent men like Harry Truman did "the best they could with what they knew and didn't know" about the full implications of the violence they were empowered to inflict, gets weaker as hindsight exposes and challenges the historical necessities and priorities for the racism and greed they conceal, then and now.

If time mercifully allows us to learn from our mistakes, it also demands repentance. Some, like J. Robert Oppenheimer and, more recently, Robert McNamara, have sought to make peace with their victims by acknowledging the horrors they helped unleash. "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, Oppenheimer later wrote, "the physicists have known sin; and this knowledge they cannot lose."

I find few indications in more recent history to suggest that we have learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Vietnam. Our presidential campaign is marked by fierce competition by the candidates over who is the real warrior, the one most ready and willing to use overwhelming military force to crush our enemies. We lament but cannot admit responsibility for a world we have helped create in which justice delayed, denied and frustrated because this serves our national interests has stirred hatred and fueled new forms of terrorism we now cannot predict or control.

The world has gotten smaller and more self-conscious because of our amazing communication technologies. We are networked into Marshall McLuhan's global village of shared consciousness and interdependence. Because we know so much, we also share a global conscience about the direct, immediate impact of our lives on the lives of others, the millions who will live or die because of the way we consume, work, vote, pray, choose, fear, hate, risk, love, reject, welcome one another. Everyone shares a driveway, our windows and doors open into each others lives, our hearts encompass each other's children as if they were our own. We dwell in time together, its logic, its necessities impinging on all of us in the same way. We must do the best we can with what we know and don't know, but we surely know by now that violence solves nothing.

Following World War II, the United States helped rebuild a broken world, and I take pride in that, and in the many other instances when the goodness and generosity of the American people were evident to the rest of the world. We needed to restore ourselves, and we did so by helping others. I think about this image of America as we approach the November elections. We have much to do to restore what has been lost to such strong trends toward isolation and arrogance.

Dorothy Day knew that war undermined civilization and human dignity by reversing the corporal works of mercy. Her solution was to build them back up, reassert them in both practical and political ways, by protest and by her witness to serving the poor. It is a small, almost invisible path, but we can all commit to it. We can live the works of mercy in the intimate circles of family, neighborhood, work, school and church. These local circles overlap, extend and reinforce one another. It is the one network that really counts, and if we want our children to know a world better than the one we now know, we need to start now.

Pat Marrin's e-mail addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.
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