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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

The Culture's Terminus (p. 223)

From chapter "Violence Revisited"

When as a teenager I first heard about Mutually Assured Destruction—the American and Soviet policies of building massive arsenals of nuclear weapons, guaranteeing that if either side struck all life on the planet would be destroyed—it became clear that something is fatally wrong with our culture. Even though at the time I considered myself conservative—as late as my freshman year in college I voted for Ronald Reagan—I understood that to build enough bombs to kill everyone on the planet hundreds of times over made no sense. Who gains from such an irresponsible and stupid undertaking? Even to construct enough bombs, nerve gas, containers of anthrax bacilli, or what have you, to kill everyone just once would be monstrously insane (to construct any weapons of mass destruction is monstrously insane). What seemed even more insane was that most people didn’t seem to share this perception of runaway lunacy, but went about their business as though this capacity for destruction—we’re talking about killing everybody on the planet, here—was nothing out of the ordinary. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Because I wanted to believe what I had been told, that our country was doing the right thing, the best thing, the most civilized thing, the sanething, I began to read history books, speeches, even policy documents. It still didn’t make sense. I read the commentary of political columnists who stated they would rather see their daughters dead than married to communists, and I wondered why no one challenged this thinking. Even as a teen I wondered how these people maintained credibility after giving voice to sentiments so unthinkable, shameful, hateful, controlling, and just plain stupid. I heard policy makers refer blithely to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people as though they were speaking of wheat falling from an open hand. This made no sense to me. I read an article lamenting that unless we built more bombs—perhaps enough to kill everyone not hundreds but thousands of times over—the United States would soon be conquered by the Soviet Union, the conquest being “done in such a way that at no one point will we feel it sensible to resist at a cost of 100 million lives.” One hundred million. My family. The families of my friends. Their friends. Everyone I had ever met. Everyone I had ever seen. All dead, with room for millions more. This made no sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I was opposed to communism, whatever that was, and believed that the Soviet Union was not only communist (which it was not) but was also, as Reagan put it, an “evil empire” (which it was, though certainly no more so than the United States). Asked to write an essay in praise of the United States for its bicentennial, I attacked the government for failing to “protect our brave allies” in South Vietnam.

But even though I thought “defending” South Vietnam was a righteous undertaking, the way it was done made no sense to me. No, I was not one of those people calling for the defoliation of the entire countryside, believing that all would be fine if we could just nuke the commies out of existence. Instead, I remember reading that the cost to American taxpayers to prosecute the war was between $250 and $350 billion. This money was spent to kill between one and three million people, which means that during the war the government paid between $80,000 and $350,000 to kill a Vietnamese person. This in a country where the per-capita income is well under $1000 per year. Not a whole lot of “bang for the buck” as military analysts are wont to say. A cheaper, more effective, and certainly more life-affirming anti-Soviet policy would have been to hand each of our supposed enemies $40,000, then tell them to go home and take care of their families. Forty to eighty years’ worth of wages in one pop would buy a hell of a lot of goodwill: had the Soviets offered me an equivalent amount of money to vote for Gus Hall, perennial Communist parry presidential candidate in the United States, I would have voted, signed petitions, carried placards, and written letters to the editor. Anything to allow me to permanently stay on the gravy train.

So the goal was never to stop the Soviets. That’s what we said, but our actions and inventions pointed to the real goal of our culture.

Incendiary devices causing firestorms that burn to death hundreds of thousands of people in a single night. Bouncing Bettys. Land mines. Atomic bombs. Hydrogen bombs. Neutron bombs. How do we make sense of these?

The military and CIA experts James A Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi analyzed military spending, and made comparisons that reveal much about the real intent of our culture: “For what the world spends on defense every 2.5 hours, about $300 million, smallpox was eliminated back in the late seventies. For the price of a single new nuclear-attack submarine, $726 million to $1 billion, we could send 5 to 7.5 million Third World children to school for a year. For the price of a single B-1 bomber, about $285 million, we could provide basic immunization treatments, such as shots for chicken pox, diphtheria, and measles, to the roughly 575 million children in the world who lack them, thus saving 2.5 million lives annually. For what the world spends on defense every forty hours, about $4.6 billion, we could provide sanitary water for every human being who currently lacks it. Looking at it another way, the roughly $290-$300 billion that the United States [spent] on defense in 1990 is greater than the total amount that Americans contribute to charity each year, about $100 billion, plus total federal, state, local, public, and private expenditures for education, roughly $150 billion, plus NASA’s entire budget of $7.6 billion, plus federal and state aid to families with dependent children, $16.3 billion, plus the cost of the entire federal judiciary and the Justice Department combined, $5.5 billion, plus federal transportation aid to state and local governments, $17.5 billion. . . . A single Stinger missile costs $40,000, or roughly 30 percent more than the income of the average American family, nearly twice more than the income of the average black American family, and about 400 percent more than the so-called poverty line . . . [and] the price of 2,000 rounds of 7.62-mm rifle or machine-gun ammunition, about $480.00, is slightly more than what the average Social Security beneficiary receives every month.” How do we wrap our minds around these priorities?

Or take plutonium. How do we explain the fabrication of plutonium? Plutonium is fundamentally a man-made element. Although traces occur naturally in uranium, its use in nuclear weapons and power have caused it to be “produced in extensive quantities,” as my staid CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics puts it. Extensive quantities, in this case, means about 260 metric tons of plutonium-239, in addition to nearly a thousand tons of plutonium’s fifteen other isotopes. Two hundred and sixty metric tons is two hundred and sixty thousand kilograms is two hundred and sixty million grams is two hundred and sixty billion milligrams. The inhalation of a few of these milligrams—a barely visible speck— causes death by internal asphyxiation in a few months as lung tissues scar up from a bombardment of alpha radiation and choke off oxygen supply to the blood. Two hundred and sixty billion milligrams is two hundred and sixty trillion micrograms. The inhalation of a few of these micrograms—by far invisible to the naked eye, as well as undetectable by human taste or smell—likely causes fatal lung cancer in ten or twenty years, as cells damaged by alpha radiation multiply uncontrollably; the incidence of lung cancer among beagles forced to inhale comparable amounts of plutonium was 100 percent. Two hundred and sixty trillion micrograms is two hundred and sixty quadrillion nanograms. The best estimate for plutonium’s LD50, or the dosage at which 50 percent of the victims die, is around ten nanograms.

The intentional fabrication of thirteen quadrillion lethal doses of plutonium seemed nonsensical to me until I was able to begin drawing lines of connecting thought and understanding from point to destructive point of our culture’s behavior. The greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet. Ubiquitous genocide leading to the deaths of scores or hundreds of millions of people. Race-based slavery, leading to the deaths of scores or hundreds of millions more. Class-based slavery. Child slavery. Mass rapes. Vivisection. Factory farms. Irrational, deadly, and suicidal military budgets and policies. What picture emerges when you see all these together?

The deforestation of the Middle East, Europe, North America, the Amazon, now Siberia. The depletion of fisher, after fishery. Just yesterday I read that scientists now predict that bluefin tuna will go extinct within the coming generation. The elimination of passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews.

There can be only one end to this, of course. Apocalypse. Götterdämmerung. The destruction of the world in the final war of the gods, gods we have first, as I mentioned before, projected, and then reintrojected. Stasis. Death. The end of all life, if the dominant culture has its way. It’s where we’ve been headed from the beginning of this several-thousand year journey. It is the only possible end for a culture of linear—as opposed to cyclical—progress. Beginning, middle, end. Self-extinguishment. The only solace and escape from separation: from ourselves, from each other, from the rest of the planet. Plutonium. DDT. Dioxin. Why else would we poison ourselves? No other explanation makes comprehensive sense. Apocalypse. “The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.” American Chestnut. American Elm. Idaho White Pine. Redwood. Tallgrass Prairie. Shortgrass Prairie. “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died.” Blue Whales. Right Whales. Cod. Halibut. Tuna. `’And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” Salmon. Bull trout. Western Cutthroat. Alabama Sturgeon. Western Sturgeon. Snail Darter. Arizona Pupfish. Each of these and so many more, individually, communally, and as species, destroyed not by angels nor by God, but by a culture aspiring toward the conclusion set forth from the beginning.

For me, at least, it was a relief to finally acknowledge and articulate this understanding I long had held in my bones, that underlying all this otherwise incomprehensible behavior is a desire to destroy other and self. The culture’s terminus: the destruction of all. It’s primary intellectual task: to simultaneously rationalize, justify and obfuscate the actions leading to this goal.

Clarity. No longer did I have to ignore smoke from next door’s burning synagogue, nor try to take at face value the myriad self-contradictory claims to virtue that daily front for destructive behavior, nor find myself befuddled by the false choices that bind us to the annihilation of our planet. Clarity.

Examples abound. They are as near as many children’s bedrooms and as far away as the stars the Vatican hopes bring light and warmth to beings who like ourselves have experienced original sin and the murder of the sinless.

Last week I read in the newspaper that the largest white pine in Idaho is dying. Nearly four hundred years old, its time has come, and beetles have arrived to finish it off. The tree stands on Forest Service ground, and the district forester does not want to allow the beetles, nor the tree, their way. Of course he’s not talking about saving the tree’s life; he wants to cut it down, pulp it, and turn the stump into a display. The reporter noted that despite the size of the tree, it may very well take more paper to justify implementation of the forester’s plan than the tree would provide as pulp. A citizen has penned on the marker in front of the old one: “This tree is dying, too bad they cut all the rest.” The tree shall not stand alone for long.

Last week I also read, in a different newspaper, that the Forest Service has begun injecting heart rot fungus into healthy trees in order to kill them. Here is the rationale: Logging has damaged forests. In order to justify continued deforestation, the Forest Service and timber industry fabricated the previously mentioned claim to virtue that additional logging is needed to repair the logging-induced damage. Thus, as I alluded to before, dead trees, dying trees, and trees that may someday die—this definition has been intentionally created to encompass all trees—must be cut so that they do not someday become sick. Now, evidently, at least some National Forests are beginning to suffer a shortage of dead, standing trees. Because in a healthy, functioning forest, dead trees remain for decades or centuries to house and feed other members of the community, those other members are suffering. The solution proposed by the Forest Service is of course not to stop cutting trees, which would mean an end, or at least a slowing, of deforestation, but instead to kill more trees. To inject poison into their hearts. Presumably once enough trees have been injected, the Forest Service will declare another forest health crisis and cut down all merchantable timber within a few-mile radius. The only way I can make sense of all this is to invoke our culture’s belief in Armageddon—and its associated death urge.

Yet another example. On October 13, 1997, Columbus Day plus one, NASA launched the Cassini Space Probe. The ostensible purpose was to explore Saturn. We could discuss the arrogance, stupidity, and inhumanity of spending $3.4 billion to explore another planet while $285 million would save the lives of 2.5 million children annually on the planet we already occupy. But the death urge is made even more clear by another factor. Because Cassini’s propulsion source didn’t have the power to send it straight to Saturn, NASA sent it first to Venus, and then, after two swings around that planet, the probe returned home, approaching within 312 miles of Earth’s surface. It used the acceleration caused by our gravity to slingshot the probe out to Saturn. Here’s the danger: in order to power its instruments, the probe contains 72.3 pounds of plutonium, mainly plutonium-238, which is about two hundred times more deadly than plutonium-239. Seventy-two and three-tenths pounds of plutonium is almost thirty-three thousand grams, or almost thirty-three million milligrams, or almost thirty-three billion micrograms, or almost thirty-three trillion nanograms.

There are two ways the plutonium could have been delivered to human victims. The first is that the Titan IV rocket carrying the probe could have exploded on launch. NASA estimated the danger of this at one in four hundred and fifty-six, which is bad enough, considering the consequences, but the truth is that a Titan IV rocket has already exploded. Nongovernmental estimates of failure were “between one in ten and one in twenty.”

The other way the plutonium could have killed people would have been if on the flyby the probe suffered what NASA scientists dryly called “an inadvertent reentry.” If NASA calculations would have been imprecise (a mission to Mars crashed because scientists failed to convert English to metric measurements in their calculations), or if the probe had malfunctioned, it could have fallen into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. As the scientists put it: “If an accident or failure resulted in loss of control of the spacecraft prior to Earth swingby, the spacecraft could conceivably be placed on a Earth-impacting trajectory.” If the craft were to “be placed on a Earth-impacting trajectory,” the scientists said that “the potential health effects [of plutonium poisoning] could occur in two distinct populations, the population within and near the reentry footprint and most of the world population within broad north to south latitude bands.” In other words, the plutonium would have poisoned those near the crash, and everyone else. The scientists stated that “approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time of the swingbys could receive 99 percent or more of the radioactive exposure.” These quotes are from NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Probe, one of the documents used to justify the launch.

The Cassini Probe was not the first to carry plutonium. It will not be the last. In 2002 the Comet Nucleus Mission will lift off carrying 25.5 kilograms of plutonium. In 2003 the Pluto Flyby will carry the same amount. Five launches to Mars will carry a total of seventeen kilograms, and four launches to the moon will carry another 42.5 kilograms.

Plutonium. Death. We inject phenol into the hearts of Jews and fungus into the hearts of trees. We send plutonium on rockets known to explode. Before members of our culture exploded the first atomic bomb, scientists were not certain that the explosion would not set off a chain reaction that would consume the entire atmosphere. Yet they proceeded. They believed their calculations were correct, they gambled, and they won. Or lost, depending on your perspective. And, as any gambler knows, the roulette ball eventually must land on double- zero. It is simply a matter of playing enough times.

All too often—every moment of every day, really—the intent of our culture becomes blazingly clear in action. In rare moments of often unintentional honesty it comes clear in speech. The detonation of the first atomic bomb was one such moment. Standing stunned before the awesome power he had helped to bring about, Robert J. Oppenheimer, one of the lead scientists of the Manhattan Project, gave voice to words that sum up in one sentence the essence of our culture: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Staring into a blast brighter than the sun, hotter, less useful—useful only to destroy—Oppenheimer was not alone. He had for company not just Descartes, Chivington, and all the rest, but also in this case those of us who see the culture for what it is, and who stand with him, staring into this power, uncomprehending, afraid, and trying desperately to stop the long and binding chain of action and reaction we see unfolding before us.