Asteroids, Sharks and Heralds of War

A couple of years ago, a big-budget Hollywood movie featured a large, rocky object headed for our planet. I never saw the film, but the trailer was sensational. Large, rocky object hurtling through space. Scared people on Earth. Brave astronauts determined to blow the large, rocky object to smithereens and save the world. High drama.

Fortunately for the filmmakers, the effort to blow the large, rocky object to smithereens was less than totally successful, leaving smaller rocky chunks to cause massive damage, luridly depicted in living color. Nothing like a good scare to keep theater seats full.

One spinoff from that film was a widespread sense of concern for our planet. What if such a threat really materialized? Could we do anything to save our butts? After all, a similar event seems to have delivered the coup de grace to the dinosaurs. The Earth is ubiquitously pocked where other objects have socked it. This is not fantasy: The threat is real. We must live in fear!

Gradually the ruckus subsided. Astronomers pointed out that such events are really quite rare in the vastness of space and the capaciousness of geologic time. NASA intoned that interception and destruction of an object was at least theoretically possible. Nuclear physicists assured us that they could build a bomb big enough to destroy almost anything. We heaved a collective sigh of relief and quickly forgot about the putative threat. Whew! That was close!

A similar mass frenzy erupted just this year in reaction to a spate of shark attacks along the East Coast. A few dozen incidents in Florida followed by a deadly episode in North Carolina landed sharks on the front page and on top of the evening news. What to do? The lions and tigers and bears of the sea are out to eat us all! Soon we were assaulted by scare stories, expert opinion and daily reportage from aerial observers who busied themselves counting sharks along the coast. Fear! Fear! The sharks are coming!

Truth be told, if truth has any bearing here, sharks have been there right along, by the millions, and if there is any urgent tale to be told concerning their number it is that their number is dwindling. Most critically, we have replaced sharks as the ocean's top prey species. We eat what they used to eat; animals without a food source tend to die off. Of course, we eat sharks as well, further depressing their numbers.

The person most responsible for modern-day shark fear, Peter Benchley, has recanted. Now a devoted friend of sharks, Benchley has publicly disavowed the bad rap he created in Jaws and contributes considerable time and money to preservation efforts. A cynic might point out that the author has all that time and money available precisely because of that book and the subsequent film, but cynicism aside, sharks need all the friends they can get.

Sadly, the media mania surrounding this year's double handful of attacks on humans is likely to increase shark death. Fishermen will be more likely to kill unintentionally hooked sharks instead of releasing them, and others will purposefully seek and destroy the big fish. Protective legislation will face higher hurdles, and fear will tend to crowd out reasoned consideration of ocean ecology.

At the risk of appearing insensitive, I would observe that we can draw a lesson from the asteroids and sharks that applies to the current tempest in Washington. (If you are fully caught up in the quest for infinite justice and vengeance and self-righteousness and hate that so pervade the media just now, you will need to take a deep breath and relax before you read further. Or, perhaps, just stop now, turn the page, and move on to less fractious fare.)

Like asteroids and sharks, terrorists are not new. Nor are terrorist acts against Americans. And despite our horror at the recent killing of more than 6,000 mostly nonmilitary citizens by a group of mostly unknown zealots, that number doesn't constitute a staggering death toll at this moment in history. The overblown institutional response to the tragedy -- pumped up by

government officials from the president on down, and amplified by news media eager to sell papers, magazines and advertising on the airwaves and Internet -- is really no different than fear of sharks or fear of large, rocky objects in space. It is trumped-up fear, packaged and sold for gain.

If the violent death of innocents deeply offended us, there would have been a hue and cry over our well-documented intentional bombardment of unarmed Iraqi soldiers and civilians who were retreating after the Gulf War. (They were headed home along a road our military had instructed them to follow.) If gruesome death offended, we would have reacted viscerally to reports of U.S. Army bulldozers burying Iraqi soldiers alive as they tried to surrender in that same conflict. This is to say nothing of the estimated 1 million deaths caused by our sanctions against that country, which former Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright said "are worth the cost."

Then too, if the killing of innocents per se stirred our hearts, America would have reacted in horror to the U.S.-sponsored coup in Indonesia in 1965 that resulted in the murder of more than 800,000 people, and the 1975 massacre of more than 250,000 innocent people in East Timor by an Indonesian regime fully sanctioned by President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Authoritative estimates of the number of innocents killed directly due to U.S. policy since World War II run to at least 8 million, including as many as 2 million in Vietnam alone. The 6,000 tragically killed on Sept. 11 are 6,000 too many, but not very many in the big scheme of things, and the merest drop in the bucket containing all the world's tears.

Of course, an attack on the homeland is keenly felt. It could have been any one of us aboard those hijacked planes, a member of any of our families in those buildings. Reaction from fear, from loss, from shock, is as natural as jerking up a hand to ward off a blow, or striking back when struck. But who benefits from fanning the flames, from turning sparks into fires of self-righteous wrath?

Surely and obviously, the news media make hay out of any calamity. The longer they can work a story, the higher they can ratchet up public alarm, the better for sales. This is in no wise different from sharks and asteroids, or Monicagate and O.J. Simpson. Trussed up in red, white and blue and predicated on a heinous crime, it can look wonderfully patriotic, but the motive remains the same.

The one person with the most to gain from all the fanfare is President George Bush (and, by extension, his close associates). Nothing could serve his political aspirations better than a chance to rail against obscure foreign enemies, assume a posture of iron statesmanship, and be handed a perfect scapegoat for anything untoward that might befall the economy. A distinctly lackluster president is suddenly reborn as a white knight on a warhorse, the implication being that we must all answer his call. Every plan he offers, every word he speaks, must be viewed through that prism.

The terrorist attack is being and will be used to justify all manner of programs, concentrations of power, and stifling of criticism in the name of nationalism and patriotic duty. Like author Benchley penning Jaws, Bush is advancing a story that will profit him enormously but that may or may not be true. It could be little more than a wild tale of sharks or asteroids, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Billions of dollars are being diverted from other urgent needs, massive troop commitments are being planned, deals are being precipitously struck with governments around the world to win their cooperation, far-reaching policy is being hammered out in hours and implemented in days.

Oughtn't we to think before we leap?

An interesting historical note: up until the second week of September the United States was the largest foreign underwriter of the Taliban, and last May the Bush administration gave them an additional $43 million in exchange for a promise to stop exporting heroin. Of course, that was in the old days when the War on Drugs was the only war in Washington. Politics makes for some pretty strange bedfellows, and here we are flying with asteroids and swimming with sharks.

Cecil Bothwell is author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader, and editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone.

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