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From the H-Bomb to the Human Bomb

André Glucksmann

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Modern terrorism seeks to combine the annihilating power of Hiroshima with the nihilistic gospel of Auschwitz.

With what measureless naivety has the twenty-first-century democratic citizen managed to be surprised when hate breaks down his door? He has -- along with his father and his father's father -- witnessed, directly or indirectly, wars, murderous revolutions, and the genocides that were the last century's specialty. How could he believe himself immune? "Not here, not me," he told himself. But then, on September 11, 2001, Americans saw several thousand of their own assassinated, for no reason. There they were, unsuspecting, in their usual places, at work or at a café, white, black, and yellow, housewife and banker, when they suddenly realized that they were targets of an indiscriminate, merciless will to kill.

A pitiless new day is dawning. The powers of the inhuman and the efficacy of hatreds mutate dangerously. A generation that worked diligently to tame the threat of nuclear war finds itself driven toward a horizon more frightening to contemplate than the one it dreamed of avoiding. Now it must try again to think the unthinkable, to leave the era of the H-bomb and enter the time of the human bomb.

Barely two generations separate us from the shock of Hiroshima, whose terrifying force we have tried over the decades to neutralize. At the time, overcome by the unprecedented event, Jean-Paul Sartre, along with many others, described a fundamental break in history: "The community that has made itself the custodian of the atomic bomb is above the natural realm, since it is responsible for life and death: it will now be necessary that each day, each minute, it consent to live." Irreversibly endowed with the power to blow up the world, mankind became defined by its capacity for universal homicide, and thus for suicide. The previously unimaginable capacity to put an end to the human adventure remained the privilege first of a single nuclear power, then of two, and then of seven.

But soon, people grew used to the new condition. Coexistence on the edge of the cliff, a balance of terror, seemed more and more reasonable. The prospect of mutual annihilation for the rival powers chilled bellicose passions. Five billion vaguely concerned men and women attended to their affairs and delegated -- democratically or not -- the ultimate care for their survival to a small number of political leaders. For half a century, we fashioned our peace, both external and internal, according to Sartre's fragile axiom: "The atomic bomb is not available to just anyone; the crazy person [who unleashed Armageddon] would have to be a Hitler."

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 20-Nov-07

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