Can you remember ever having lived in a time of peace?
Seriously. Give it a little thought.
This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, and I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that I can't think of a single period of time beyond a week or two in all the years I've been alive that I've known anything like peace in the geopolitical sense. I was born in the late 1970's with the horrors of the Vietnam War fading slowly in popular memory. Even though I was too young to really record any memories the Vietnam War was one of the first "bad things" I recall hearing or reading about as a youngster. Of course, as a child of the 80's I'd be asleep at the wheel (or just distracted by one of the many funny image sites on the Net...) if I neglected to bring up the Cold War the United States was embroiled in for most of my formative years. Yes, I speak of the time in which Communism was the enemy of the USian way of life and myriad wars were fought by deniable assets, authors of propaganda, and the ever-present threat of thermonuclear annihilation. If we didn't buck up, stand true to our principles, and recite the Pledge of Alleigance reverently at the ol' Stars and Stripes each and every morning then we'd find ourselves either standing in a soup line anxiously awaiting our daily allotment of black bread and borscht or be reduced to so much ash blown away on winds several times hotter than those at midday in the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Then, things seemed to quiet down a little when the Berlin Wall came down. It was a time that none of us ever thought we'd see, the time when east and west Germany were no longer separated by walls and machine gun emplacements, and it looked as if we might just be able to heave a sigh of relief as the USSR threw in the towel. We won. Mom, Pop, and apple pie came down on top of the hammer and sickle like Hulk Hogan off the top rope, one-two-three, ring the bell because the match is over. Right?
The dust in downtown Berlin hadn't settled before the deeds of a foul-tempered man named Saddam Hussein began to be called far and wide like steps in a global square dance, only this time the aim was to step on the toes of everybody. Poison gas was deployed in Iraqi Kurdistan and thousands of people were killed. The notion of 'human rights' in Iraq went the way of used pipe cleaners and platform shoes with goldfish swimming in the heels, but it wasn't until Iraq moved on Kuwait after accusations of market manipulation and price fixing that, once again, military might was the word of the day. Operation Desert Shield transformed into Operation Desert Storm, and once again fear gripped the land. Would petrol become too expensive to comfortably buy? Would chemical weapons be deployed? Might the long-awaited Fight to the Finish in the Middle East tear the planet asunder? Nobody knew, and nobody in a position to say anything was allowed to, so the best we could do was tie yellow ribbons onto trees in the yard and hope that our loved ones came back safe and sound. Which, when you think about it, is a notion about as far removed from war as is possible.
After that came rumors that the newly capitalist Russia was unstable in certain far-reaching ways, whispers of industrial espionage were heard in seedy dialup bulletin boards and the then-embryonic Internet. Again, lots of wild speculation and the odd post here and there, but nobody with any hard info was making their presence felt. Most everybody still remembers the riots in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, which some claim is the true beginning of both sousveillance and citizen journalism. Kosovo and Yugoslavia, two countries that very few adolescents had heard of at the time outside of advanced geography classes also flared up, and the word 'atrocities' once again crept into the vocabularies of the talking heads. We really didn't know what that meant but we had just enough imagination to know that it wasn't good. Then came the World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the Taliban (which would become a media personality in its own right a scant few years later) claiming Afghanistan as its own. It got to the point where if you didn't keep a score card you couldn't keep track of what was going on in the world for longer than a couple of weeks at a stretch. The aftershocks of all of these events reverberated through the media overmind as my generation graduated from high school, slouched off to college, and tried to make sense of a world that had always known madness and turmoil.
I don't think many of us as students considered ourselves safe, not if we were even vaguely plugged in. Most of us who had relatives in some branch of the armed forces wondered if their mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles would be shipped out to Kuwait or Iraq, and those of us who didn't would sometimes wonder out loud if the draft would happen again. Almost as if history itself was giving Generation X its own special one-fingered mudra of contempt (the First Posture of Esteem to Walter Jon Williams for that brilliant turn of phrase) Columbine happened, and all of us freaks, weirdos, outcasts, funny-looking sorts, and eccentrics were no longer targets for the sports team but instead potential hand grenades with the pins hanging ever so slightly loose and ready to fall out... when all you want is to be left alone and figure out who the hell you are, everybody thirty years older than you thinking you have a kilo of plastique in your backpack can't be good for the zeitgeist.
The twenty-first century - our long awaited promised land of flying cars, jetpacks, direct neural interfaces, and absurdly voluminous black trenchcoats imploded like a house of cars before a hair dryer on full blast on 11 September 2001. That was just long enough ago that I don't think I have to go into any detail about it because we're still living through it. The past decade has brought us the USA PATRIOT Act, the TSA, local police being kitted out with military equipment which causes all but the most jaded warhawks to sweat lustfully, hate crimes, paranoia the likes of which since the initial publication of well.. the RPG Paranoia!,
kidnapping "extraordinary rendition", torture enhanced interrogation techniques, the National Defense Authorization Act (which, of course, is going to pass regardless of what anyone says or does), dot dot dot.
I could go on and on and on, and in fact I did on this website for many years, until I realized something: The world is completely and utterly mad.
Perhaps this is why sages, gurus, buddhas, and mystics all have the same sort of smile - they came to the same conclusion and decided to ride with it because the alternative is oblivion. There's no sense in searching for order in the chaos because there isn't any, we just tell ourselves that there is even when we know better. There's no reason for anyone to go to the front of the (metaphorical) bus to grab the bozo behind the wheel because there isn't anyone in the driver's seat. A pothole here, a speedbump there, a nasty scrape along a rusty guardrail on the other side of the street, an irritated grandmother in the crosswalk, that's all that keeps us as a species from going into the ravine head-first. Trust in the leaders of the western world is at an all-time low and pretty soon those numbers are going to need double-precision floating point values to hold such tiny fractions.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Things aren't going to get better if we continue to look to the upper echelons because it's become blatantly obvious that they don't have anyone's best interests at heart but their own (although a few of us might be compatible tissue donors). In the storm that surrounds us now, it's up to each and every one of us to be that little calm place in the lee of a rock or tree. That adds up in a surprisingly short time. For all that's gone horribly wrong in the past couple of years, we also have available to each and every one of us a dazzling amount of knowledge the likes of which was undreamed of just a couple of years ago. It's a daunting task to sift through it all but we already have the answers, we just have to find them again. If each of us can tap just a little bit of that madness and make it our own, I think we stand a pretty good shot at making it even though it's looking pretty grim right now.
If all else fails, we can always claim papal infallibility. We couldn't possibly do much worse.
Can you remember ever having lived in a time of peace?