I awoke from my dream exhausted. It began with a chaotic and mostly doomed attempt to give a talk at the parish in which I grew up, and ended with a mushroom cloud. I really should turn the radio off before falling asleep.
But I don't think I will. Safe and warm in bed, sure of clean water pouring
from the tap should I become thirsty in the night, sure of fresh bread ready to slice for toast in the morning, knowing that the people I love are all right, I lie there and listen to news from Japan, where thousands of people are sure of none of these things, where thousands more lie silent, buried in mud and debris. I listen to worried engineers talking about damaged nuclear reactors, climbing radiation levels.
To listen Is to pray. Surely these innocent deserve that much from me.
In addition to an earthquake and a tsunami, Japan has had what is now called a nuclear accident. It has happened in the immediate wake of deadly twin natural disasters, the worst of their kind ever to hit Japan. But there are many people there, older people, who remember another moment like this one -- deadly like this one, but faster. A long-ago bringer of death, visible and invisible. And no accident.
How the world watches! The television in the train station waiting room shows it over and over-- cars and houses eddying round and round, smashing into one another like the toys of a large destructive child. Great bridges splinter like balsa wood, enormous ships plunge down highways lately turned to rivers. And unexpected fire everywhere, fire in the water, ominous fire from the reactors, fire and clouds of smoke the size of cities, followed by the stealthy killer no one can see but everyone knows is everywhere.
The first time, the time that was no accident, we were the ones who visited this horror on the people of Japan, ending a hot war and providing the unforgettable image for a fifty-year cold one -- a cloud like a mushroom, whooshing into being above a stunned landscape. Now, we praise the ingenuity of our former foe, trust in Japanese competence, admire their business models. Statesmen talk about our longterm alliance. Economists on the radio explain the intimacy of our two great economies. Our stock exchanges shudder together.
Imagine -- wars end. Eventually, people have to stop fighting -- either one side wins, or both run out of soldiers. Eventually, nothing holier than a desire for commerce forces friendship to bloom in the place where enmity was. Eventually, we can see human beings where before we saw only a cartoon enemy, with great toothy smiles and little slit eyes -- there are real people there, parents, children, grandmothers. There are students who want to grow up and make something of themselves. There are musicians there, and filmmakers. There
are superb engineers. Our kids like their graphic novels, and create their own in imitation of them.
And natural disasters strike. They strike hard and without warning. But each one offers a chance for compassion to move the whole of us on from the deliberate harshness that lived in our common past, to wipe away the last vestige of war's heartlessness and put something better in its place. Our wars come and go. We win or lose. And the world is much bigger than any of it.
"It had to end," a soldier of that war told me once, when we were talking about Hiroshima. "It just couldn't go on." Many military historians think the bomb saved lives in the end -- that the Japanese would have fought to the last man, woman, child. That millions, not hundreds of thousands, would have died. We watch an old newsreel: a group of Japanese farm women in a militia drill, using their pitchforks for bayonets. Maybe they would have. We will never know.
We do know that a force we cannot contain was let loose on the earth on those two days in the summer of 1945. That the atom bomb did more than end the war. That the central figure of our frightened fantasies -- a dirty bomb in somebody's suitcase, a nuclear Libya or North Korea, a madman dictator -- is not the only carrier of the next round of death, nor even the likeliest one. No, the likeliest carrier is closer to home. We'll depend on nuclear power because we think we must. Because we are unwilling unable not to include it in our stable of peacetime energy sources. We will admire its relative cleanliness. Nuclear power is more carbon neutral than coal or oil, we will tell one another. And this is true.
Unless there's a meltdown.
Our economist on the Farm, Carol Stone, has many Japanese colleagues, and writes in "Ways of the World" about the economic effects of the earthquake and its terrible aftermath, proving that economics is much more than crunching the numbers. Visit www.geraniumfarm.org and click on Ways of the World.