The Dangers of Then, the Dangers of Now


We live in the most dangerous time in history. Everyone knows it. Indeed, during the 2004 presidential debates, Bob Schieffer asked the question, “Will our children and grandchildren ever live in a world as safe and secure as the world in which we grew up?” And both John Kerry and George W. Bush opined deeply on how we need to make America as safe as it used to be — when we were young.

Opinion: The Dangers of Then, the Dangers of Now

Over the weekend, I happened to catch “The Day After” on cable. It wasn’t intentional. I was flipping around channels and tripped across it. But I couldn’t turn away for some time after it came on, and it brought back a feeling I hadn’t felt since my childhood, at once sickening and familiar.

For those of you under 30, “The Day After” probably brings up no particular memories. But for those over 30, it’s something remembered as a powerful artistic realization of what we all feared, every day — a nightmare humanity lived until the end of the Cold War.

In the film, war breaks out between the Soviet Union and their allies in the Warsaw Pact and America and our allies in NATO over a blockade of West Berlin. Tactical nuclear weapons are used in Western Europe. And from the film’s vantage point in Lawrence, Kansas, and the surrounding area, we watch dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles take off for the Soviet Union. And as anyone who lived through that time knows, there are missiles inbound from the Soviets at the same time.

All that is prelude for the horror that lies after we see thermonuclear weapons exploding in Kansas City and over missile silos in Oklahoma and Kansas. We watch as the survivors try to stay sane in their basements, treat patients in a hospital with no power and hundreds of injured people inbound make it to safety while walking through fallout and enduring the consistent bombardment of radiation from the attack. We listen as people realize they can’t burn wood. It just would put radiation back into the air. People riot. And many people die.

At the end of the film, civilization itself lays in jeopardy. The very fate of the human race appears bleak; if we are to survive, it is obvious that it will be at a much lower level of technology than we have enjoyed.

I kept watching the film not because any of this was unfamiliar to me. It was all too familiar. It was what I grew up with. I felt the same twist in my gut I’d felt when I was 10, knowing that at any moment, it could all end, and not just for me — I could deal with that, but for everyone. And all because we were reckless enough to adopt and accept the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Now, the Cold War had a happy ending. Our half-century standoff ended when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. And from the early 1990s, we as a species have been released from that instant existential threat. But there’s no question that the Cold War represented the high-water mark for global disaster.

As I said, we hear often these days about how we live in dangerous times. And I suppose we do; the 3,000 killed on September 11, 2001, are unlikely to be the last Americans killed by terrorism. I live on the flight path into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Tomorrow, a plane could be brought down on top of me, and I’d be dead.

But if that happens, society will carry on. Even if the nightmare scenario of a suitcase nuclear weapon or a biological weapon comes to fruition, it would destroy a city, and perhaps millions, but it would not destroy our nation, much less humankind.

It pays to be vigilant, and to work to guard against terror attacks. And law enforcement and our intelligence agencies should be given all constitutional means to prevent them. But we should stop worrying about whether our children are going to live safer lives than we did. Watching “The Day After,” I was reminded that for all the danger in the world, my daughter will never have to fear what I grew up fearing. Her world is already safer and more secure than mine was.