Anymore, no one can know. The layers of complexity streaming from the ganglia of computers call for major reassessments every few minutes. Almost any day you open the paper or turn on the radio or bring up a screen, a new planet has been given a number, and half a dozen manmade chemicals with far-reaching but yet-to-be-calculated effects on life have been spawned. Those who make the new chemicals tell us that each one holds out the promise of financial profit, at the least. The chemical's potential to alter mammalian hormones or stagger reproductive systems—these questions are too expensive, too disruptive of the economic order to address, they say. Be happy with the profit, the people from Dow and Union Carbide tell us. Buy the stock. Be happy.
No one any longer can know what needs to be known in order to make the less harmful choice. An era of strong men deciding our fate, working against us with the politician's usual bag of tricks—cajolery, hate mongering, misdirection, prevarication, bribery, favor trading—is our near history. The strong-man technique—the earnest progress of a conceited mind through the labyrinth of the ineluctable paradox that defines humanity—has no wisdom to offer. The burgeoning of information in the modern era is matched by no burgeoning of knowledge. The strong man—Kim Jongil, Chávez, Bush, Putin—has nothing enlightened to say, no map to share but the one with his personal Eden at its center.
The blood slaughter of our time—of Ottoman Armenians, of Polish Jews, of Bosnian Muslims, of the Cambodian middle class, of the Kenyan Kikuyu, of indigenous people in the "New World"—has brought us no closer to God or Eden or serenity. The perpetrators have nothing to show for it but power and money, the most venal and least imaginative of dreams.
Time is short—for those who believe the biology of man is calling to us over the din of warring ideologies. Even if it is only to reduce the level of noise, we could consider reconciliation. How many marriages are yet to die on the kitchen floor? How many boys with Bibles are to be blown into streamers of bone and flesh by plastique fashioned into a bomb by a boy who can't spell jihad? Less and less can we afford the wars. Less and less [End Page 171] can we afford to separate philosophy from fact, to wonder whether the Internally Displaced Person is a victim of politics or ecology, of bad luck or mental incapacity. The person is in agony. We would do better to offer a real hand. We would do better to study the internal dialog of the tormentor, the abuser living in the interior of each of us.
Healing the self through the damping of internal warfare—we hear about the utility of this approach from many quarters. Healing the family, putting an end to the shattered furniture and swift changes made to the door locks. We hear of this also. War kills, we understand. Reconciliation gives the warring factions the possibility of a more irenic future—one in which murder has one less disguise, and mayhem in the barrio, in the boardroom, in the workplace, has fewer champions.
Who will the inventors of peace be? Who will heed the plea of Everychild for a less brutal future? It will be some community where the close listener quiets the eager talker. Some community where deliberation and history are included in the same gesture that recognizes the insights of genius.
The courage that calls us now is the courage to begin work we will never see finished, to accept—and live fully—lives hounded by despair, and to nourish beliefs the rational mind easily turns its broad back on. The first gesture of courage, we understand, goes unnoticed by all save the actor. [End Page 172]
Barry Lopez is an essayist and fiction writer. His works include Arctic Dreams, for which he received the National Book Award; Of Wolves and Men, a National Book Award finalist and recipient of the John Burroughs and Christopher...