Is this the worst of times? Poet John Olson begins his essay in these pages with the words “I don’t remember a time of greater insecurity.” Before reflecting on the problem-plagued attempt by physicists in Switzerland to find the “God particle,” he offers a grim survey of the world’s economic and climate problems, the eruptions of violence abroad, and the growth of domestic violence in the United States. Elsewhere in this issue, in a “Letter from Rwanda,” political scientist Sarah Kenyon Lischer tells of a research trip to a country whose worst of times are easier to pinpoint than to understand: the 100 days in 1994 when the ruling Hutu majority suddenly rampaged, murdering 800,000 of their Tutsi and moderate Hutu countrymen. By Olson’s standard of global insecurity, consider the year 1940, another worst of times, which the distinguished historian John Lukacs reflects upon in his essay “Seventy Years Later.” The German monster Hitler had escaped his cage, and it was clear then that he would not be content to conquer Europe but wished to dominate the whole world.
The world fought back, we know, eventually destroying Hitler and his mad dreams. Fifteen years after the Rwanda genocide, Lischer found memorials to the dead and official efforts at reconciliation, although the surviving population remains numbed by the horror it underwent. Even Olson offers some hope, dismissing daffy speculation that the experiment in Switzerland could create a black hole that gobbles us all up, and pointing out that if you are reading this after the expected early-December startup of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, you can strike one item off your things-to-dread list.
Dread is not the same thing as danger. However deep our feelings of insecurity, most Americans, and certainly those of us who have the luxury of reading this or any other magazine, are secure in ways that the costs of health care or the ravings of the tea partiers cause us to overlook. We are not in danger of being conquered by a foreign madman or of participating in the genocide of our neighbors. We aren’t likely to starve, even as the jobless rate goes up and “food insecurity”—hunger—increases. Still, we have legitimate worries. Given the uneasiness with which we’ve dealt with the relatively harmless H1N1 virus, what will happen to civil order if and when a truly lethal plague breaks out? And what will happen to our civil liberties if and when another serious terrorist attack takes place? Yes, it’s a time of great insecurity, much of it deriving from legitimate fears that our government has ceased to function effectively except in service to the wealthy. Perhaps we should be grateful that, however inured they are to the needs of the rest of us, the rich and powerful also want to be secure.
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