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ROGER ROSENBLATT: Whatever happened to nuclear annihilation? You remember–the overarching monumental fear that for decades shaped nearly all of American diplomacy and culture.
Gone in a flash. Replaced by little terrors, such as the sub-culture of terrorism, itself, an up and down menace that surfaces in discreet events like the bombings of buildings and planes. Or, if that particular little terror is not felt, then there is the one of spring plagues and deadly viruses. This particular terror probably began with AIDS and then grew like a plague, itself, to encompass the Ebola virus and other chilling news. So it goes these days.
Little terrors mean a lot, mean everything. The heart that fears the cataclysm now freezes at the bulletin.
But whatever happened to nuclear annihilation, the end of the world in one big boom? Until a few years ago, that often-imagined unimaginable event was the fear of fears. Not ten years ago I went down into the earth of a Montana farm and saw a little room containing two young Air Force officers, a console, lots of buttons, and a couple of keys.
A few yards from that room stood a missile–armed, solemn, alert, waiting to take off over the pole on a half hour one-way flight to Moscow. It had a counterpart in the Soviet Union waiting to fly to us. I’ll tell you, if you were not scared by a sight like that, blood does not course in your veins. Yet that sort of fear has been scattered to pieces these days and quite irrationally.
Americans, who spent their school years ducking and covering and watching Russian leaders rant and bang their shoes on the table, no longer fear the end of the world by bomb.
Yet, it’s still possible. It will just take a bit longer. Not only are there portable missiles that get around by suitcase; there is still plenty of the old-fashioned silo variety out there in nut land, waiting for some nut’s command. Does the threat seem less real because there’s no longer one big bad enemy, ready to launch? Do we feel safer in the gun sights or the bomb sights of Iran or Iraq? As Seinfeld would put it, “What’s up with that?”. It may be that our collective nervous system could no longer take the continuing pressure of envisioning the final blast, and that this weariness occurred simultaneously with the dissolution of the Soviets. Even a massively fearful imagination can run out of steam.
SPOKESMAN: I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: How many “Dr. Strangeloves” could one take? How many “last men on earth” episodes of the “Twilight Zone”–one of the last end-of-the-world films produced was a TV movie called “The Day After,” in which the Soviets blew up Kansas City.
Unthinkable–enough. Whatever the cause, when the big red machine said Das Veedahnya, we immediately began to think micro instead of macro, think small. A bomb in a briefcase or a germ in a monkey may do the world in, but it will take more time. Death appears manageable. There was within the vision of nuclear annihilation an odd sort of beauty. A real apocalypse is nothing to love, but, as an image, a dream, as nuclear war fortunately remained, it had its moments. One was loathe to admit it, but a mushroom cloud was kind of lovely to look at. When Slim Pickens saddled up the missile and rode down through the clouds in “Strangelove,” it looked kind of fun.
So big was the idea of a nuclear finale that it took on the beauty of every grand tragedy–sweet and terrible all at once, and too overwhelming to bear. America is no longer overwhelmed by the prospect of the end. There is nothing grand anymore in the vision. And the finale is foreseen perhaps as it always really was as a nasty little series of murders. The world, which was to end in one big bang, will now pop off in small doses, administered by serial killers. This may not be progress, but it’s different.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.