(EDITOR’S NOTE: This column first appeared shortly after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. It has run every year since, with the author’s updates.)
To All the Grandchilden in the World
By Wendell Abern
Dear Grandchildren Everywhere,
Today, I am writing to apologize to all of you.
Usually, I try to write humor. But eighteen years ago, terrorists killed thousands of Americans by flying airplanes into buildings. And this month, memorials and other reminders of that horrendous day make it impossible to write anything funny.
Insteady, today I want to apologize to everyone in your generation from everyone in mine.
As presumptuous as that sounds, consider: my generation inherited the scraps of one world war and struggled through another. Millions of people were killed.
We should have learned something from those two terrible wars. We should have made the world a better place for you.
We didn’t. And we didn’t. Just like all the generations that preceded us.
More than 150 years ago, a man by the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What we learn from history … is that we never learn from history.” True. Sadly, true.
No generation has ever learned, for example, the one thing that every human being has in common: none of us asked to be here. We had no say in the matter at all.
I believe that once given the gift of life, no one should have the right to take it away. I sometimes wonder how many concur with that, since human beings kill other human beings every day. Every hour. Every place on earth.
And in wars, we kill each other by the millions, almost always in the name of some –ism, -ology, or –ocracy.
One reason we keep warring is because of another reason no generation has ever learned: how to tell The Good Guys from The Bad Guys.
That is just as dumb as it sounds. But it keeps happening. And it happens because we want so badly to believe in our leaders: our presidents, our prime ministers, our priests, our rabbis – any of our leaders. We want them to be smart, to be fair, to be honest, and always to be right.
But we forget that our leaders are simply human beings, capable of making mistakes and being wrong.
And because we want so badly to believe what they tell us, we seemingly do anything they ask. Which includes killing other human beings. Our leaders realize they can manipulate us by using emotional keys, such as hatred and bloated patriotism. Ergo, wars.
Millions of Americans protested our country’s involvement in Viet Nam because we didn’t understand who hated us. Conversely, if President Carter had declared war on Iran after zealots kidnapped 52 Americans, we would have responded with fervent jingoism.
One thing the human race has learned – and sadly ignored – is that history is written by the winners. So how can we ever be sure The Good Guys won and The Bad Guys lost?
Many centuries ago, a man named Alexander led an army that conquered other countries, to make them chattels of the country of Greece. Some history books still refer to him as Alexander the Great. No one knows what he was called by the thousands of widows and orphans his marauding armies left in their wake.
If Germany had won World War II, the madman Adolph Hitler – arguably the most evil human being who ever lived – would be portrayed in today’s history books as a dynamic, charismatic leader.
Some 10,000 years ago, the human race discovered agriculture, creating the biggest sea change in our evolutionary history. We no longer had to hunt for food. We could grow our own. We settled down. We grew into little communities. We built villages. And towns.
We have been at war ever since.
Personally, my strongest belief is that nothing is as sacred or as beautiful as a human life. Any human life.
I doubt many leaders would agree with that. At some point in the history of our civilization, our leaders determined that our beliefs were more important than our lives. That has never changed.
About 7,000 years ago, there were almost 27 million of us listening to a few leaders, telling us to go kill each other in the name of some –isms.
About 500 years ago, there were now 450 million of us, still listening to a few leaders, still telling us to go kill each other in the name of some new –isms.
Today, there are almost eight billion of us, still listening to a few leaders, still telling us to go kill each other in the name of the latest –isms.
When does it stop? When do we stop using our beliefs as license to kill each other?
Today, more than 70 years after the unspeakable atrocity known as The Holocaust … and after a weary world swore, “Never again”… and after a United Nations was created to bring peace to the whole planet … genocides continue to flourish. Ethnic cleansing occurs every decade or so. As I write this, the slaughter of innocent people continues. Globally.
Leaders of these slaughters invoke hatred, of course, as a motivator And why not? It has always worked.
Some have tried to unite people by other means. Mahatma Gandhi brought people together with love instead of hatred. So did Martin Luther King. So have a precious few others.
However, too many leaders have discovered that hatred works better.
And finally, here is a lesson we all should have learned in kindergarten: ours is the only planet that supports life. We should be taking care of Earth. And I admit that your generation is doing a much better job than mine. Or any previous generation, for that matter.
Today, we all face a disastrous calamity: climate change.
In June of this year (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), our planet averaged temperatures almost two degrees warmer than the entire Twentieth Century average. According to one scientist, “Earth is running a fever, and it won’t break, thanks to climate change.”
Your generation has already shown its concern, all over the world. Yet many in my generation claim climate change has not really been proven; that it is “fake science.” I hope you can prove us to be ill-informed and short-sighted.
I hope you can start to change many of our entrenched patterns also.
Most of all, I hope you can start … to stop … mass killings. It will take many, many future generations to overcome cycles of hatreds generating hatreds; of killings spawning revenge; of broken alliances, shattered truces and unconscionable genocides.
I hope you can make the world a tiny bit better. And a little cleaner. And much safer.
I hope when you get to be my age, you never have to write a letter of apology to all the grandchildren in the world.
Wendell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org