Shock and Awe

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Our betters, religious and secular, like to instruct us on the virtues of universal brotherhood. But it is hard enough to overcome selfishness; harder still to overcome ties of family and tribe and nation. How are we to feel for all humanity?

Our efforts to institutionalize universalism have been disappointing. The U.N., intended to be the parliament of man, has instead become a cockpit of rivalries that often sharpen, not lessen, feelings of national and racial hostility. Our other famous attempt, the Olympics, has also fallen short. The opening and closing ceremonies can be sweet celebrations of our oneness. But sandwiched in between are two weeks of doping, cheating, clawing and jousting to earn you a flag-draped victory lap and gold to bring home to the tribe.

These noble failures suggest that self-conscious attempts at creating community simply don't work. Our divisions are too profound. True expressions of our common humanity are more spontaneous, if infrequent. And they generally emerge in response to two kinds of phenomena: disaster and discovery.

It is a particular kind of disaster, however, that moves us to recognize global solidarity. Epidemics are simply too slow. And localized catastrophes, such as the mudslides and floods in the U.S. last week or even the Iranian earthquake of 2003, are usually too parochial in their victimization to catch the attention of all humanity. It takes a multicontinental cataclysm--instantaneous, catastrophic, widely spread--to shake the world from its self-absorption. The tsunami that destroyed thousands of lives from Sumatra to Somalia engendered an instant, near-universal outpouring of concern, shared grief and charitable giving. Ronald Reagan once startled the U.N. by suggesting in a speech that humanity would unite and forget its petty divisions if we were attacked from outer space. This elicited widespread head scratching, but the point was unassailable: external threats do exactly that--not little green men but forces closer to home, forces we often assume we have tamed.

Comes the tsunami and we realize to our horror that Nature has merely to shrug, to flick a finger, as it were, and hundreds of thousands of us are broken, entire nations thrown into chaos and grief. It is the ultimate reminder of our common fragility, of just how precarious our species' ridiculously brief sojourn on this earth really is.

The other, more ennobling reminder of our common humanity is scientific discovery, which reveals not our vulnerability but our genius, not our weakness but our glory. The most universal of these inspirations have come, literally, from outer space, from our few distant glimpses of the uniqueness of our tiny earthly habitat and the brilliance of the species that could contrive to get up, out and beyond it. Indeed, the birth of our modern "whole earth" consciousness can be traced to a single act of exploration: Apollo 8's circumnavigation of the moon and the astonishing photo--Earthrise, that vision of a little blue planet--that it sent back.

Just two days before the tsunami, the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn received instructions from this frail little species three planetary orbits away, and proceeded to detach and launch its Huygens probe to fly suicidally down to the giant moon Titan--measuring, sensing, learning and teaching through its final descent. All for one purpose: to satisfy the hunger for knowledge of a species three-quarters of a billion miles away.

Huygens carried no passengers, only the product of thousands of years of the accumulated knowledge of a race of beings that is, until proved otherwise, the crown of all creation. Even as Earth is tossing us about like toys, our own little proxies, a satellite and a probe, dare disturb Saturn and Titan. What a piece of work is man!

And yet how frail. The most famous reaction to disaster is that poignant cry from a radio reporter sent to cover the landing of the airship Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937. Suddenly it goes up in flames. Bodies burn and fall pitiably. "Oh, the humanity!" Everyone has heard the cry, but it is puzzling. It has little logical meaning. It is but the primal expression of anguished fellow feeling for the fate of unknown human forms falling from the sky. At times like that we literally feel the humanity.

And at one other time too. Beside the sorrow of our frail humanity there is also the glory of our genius. Amid the shock and grief at our common helplessness before a cruel ocean, there is also this: when Huygens sent back those wondrous pictures from the surface of Titan this past Friday, we were reminded once again of our stubborn little common human greatness.