“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” [Bhagavad Gita XI.32]
We live under the reign of death – under the threat of death, the fact of death, the fear of death, the practice of death, the way of death. We are reminded of it on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the day after President Obama’s speech about ISIS.
One might suppose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons, thought he and his colleagues were taking humanity higher up the ladder of human progress. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning, he sensed a fall into the arms of the destroyer of worlds while watching the first nuclear explosion in 1945.
Twenty years later, during a visit to Japan, Oppenheimer reflected on his immediate reaction watching the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo that unleashed the genie of atomic power on the world, knowing it could never be put back in the bottle.
“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. His eyes were sullen, like someone who was remembering a great horror, his voice quiet, his speech slow, pensive, sorrowful. Maybe even penitential. The way some people talk who suffer post traumatic stress syndrome.
“A few people laughed, a few people cried . . . most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Oppenheimer is long gone. So is Edward R. Murrow, the courageous journalist who stood up to the right wing’s insidious attacks on J. Robert Oppenheimer and others using the verbal weaponry to which we have become accustomed: innuendo, guilt by association, sentences taken out of context, and the imputation of scurrilous motives, character assassinations the destroy the reputations of thoughtful people deemed by the dutiful to be less than dutiful patriots.
Today, the 13th Anniversary of the horror of 9/11, we pause to remember. We do so in the post-nuclear world of mass destruction first observed by Oppenheimer at Alamogordo where Death has become the destroyer of worlds, where ISIL beheads journalists and President Obama commits to destroying ISIL from the face of the earth. We all hold our breath at the sight of the multi-armed, ever-changing form of the power of Death and its summons to duty.
In America the arms industry stands alone as exempt from consumer protection laws, beyond congressional review. The guns at the gun shows, the military vehicles that patrolled the streets of Ferguson, the arms and other military equipment our government supplies to regimes around the world, the bombs dropped from drones, and the drones themselves constitute an unaccountable cabal of money and power like no other in the American economy. Ours has become a war economy, an economy that profits from death.
“A few people laughed,” said Oppenheimer with deep sadness. “Most people were silent.”
Once the destroyer of worlds is loosed, the genie can never be put back in the bottle. But those who have witnessed the explosions, or heard of them, here at home in Ferguson, and abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, or Syria have a responsibility to honor the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other brave men and women who refused to remain silent about the tragic climb up the ladder toward divine power that always leads to the fall into a hell of our own making.