Some years ago my daughter and I had the privilege of visiting the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. Not far from the millions of wildebeests and zebras migrating across the Serengeti Plain, the Olduvai Gorge museum was occupied that day by a single gentle African supervisor. There were no other tourists. We had this place of origins to ourselves.
The museum documented Louis Leakey and colleagues’ discovery of the fossil remains
of our most distant bipedal ancestors. The most striking exhibition was a replica of 3.7 million-year-old footprints in fossilized mud, clearly those of a male, a female, and two children. These fragile indentations were poignantly immortalized by volcanic ash that rained down from a sudden eruption, preserved until Leakey’s team unearthed them.
As we exited the museum into the windswept parking area, I experienced my own inner eruption from some foundational depth. Tears began to pour. I had no clear idea why. The gentle curator came out and put his arm around my shoulder. From his kind gesture I sensed that others besides me had had a similar response to the museum’s displays, as I tried to put into words whatever had me in its grip. “All the wars. . !” I sobbed, and he nodded.
That was part of it—the sad waste of human-on-human violence through the passage of millions of years—but not all of it. We had experienced a visceral connection with that far-off little family not only as tragedy but as hope. Their footprints had erased the immense chasm of time between us and them. They and others like them had managed to reproduce and carry the human experiment forward, in a delicate unbroken chain stretching across millennia to the present. Their meeting of their survival challenges had made our own lives possible.
The experience in Olduvai Gorge rushed back as I read of President Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. My moment in the Gorge twenty years ago, the experience of a connection across time deep enough to cause tears, of feeling overwhelmed by all that our species has gone through, begged the question: when will we ever learn?
Secretary Pompeo’s and President Trump’s rationalizations for the killing of Soleimani were typically Orwellian: “We did this not to start a war but to stop one.” It’s the same kind of absurd calculation that motivated bin Salman when he had Jamal Khashoggi strangled and dismembered—and went on to sentence to death half the team that did the deed under his own orders.
We feel weariness and exasperation at the banality of our tit-for-tat violence against each other. After endless tribal clashes, crusades, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Saddam’s or Assad’s exterminations, the Turkish or Nazi or Rwandan genocides, have we learned nothing about the ultimate futility of an eye for an eye, which, as Gandhi said, only makes the whole world blind?
A plague on both their houses, the American and the Iranian “leaders”—a plague on all their houses—the murderous, up-to-no-good Soleimani, the Russians who support the Iranian militias and Assad as he decimates his own people, the grotesque excesses of ISIS, Putin’s own thuggish assassinations of dissidents, the Chinese forced ”re-education” of the Uighurs, the cowardly Saudis trembling at the independence of the mild-mannered Khashoggi.
So much militarism and murder and cruelty and torture around the world so that dictators can keep ordinary human beings in line by intimidation and violence and gross violations of privacy—by “facial recognition” technology without real recognition— of mutuality.
So many refugees, so many children mentally or physically damaged. Where is the Greta Thunberg who will hurl indignation at the shameful failure of grown-ups to keep children safe from war’s ravages?
To say we are children is an insult to heroic children like Greta. We are not children, we are infantile—I mean we the human species. Not to have learned from 1914 assassination of the archduke which began WW1, or the treachery of Pearl Harbor and the first use of the atom bomb in war, or the partition of India and Pakistan that still reverberates in Kashmir, or the British-American overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953, or the Cuban Missile crisis, or the failures of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not to have learned how futile it is to hate our enemies more than we love our children.
Not even to have begun to see we are not Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, Iranian and American, Hindu and Muslim, dark or light-skinned, but one species, all facing the climate emergency together, all wanting security, nourishing food, clean water, a better life for our kids, all equally in search of meaning, dignity, fulfillment. Which means that the two words “diplomatic solution” go together far better than “military solution.”
Meanwhile the juggernaut of the arms race rushes headlong toward apocalypse. The Russians boast of a new hypersonic missile that can glide to an exact target anywhere on earth in half an hour or less, and we Americans mindlessly vow to equal or surpass this latest destabilizing innovation. We are hell-bent toward the next global war, but even the most war-loving generals won’t like it when it actually happens. And it will, it will, unless we start to picture ourselves in each other’s shoes and work out our differences. As Auden wrote, “we must love one another or die.”
Isn’t the 3.7 million years between the footprints of our forebears at Olduvai and 2020 time enough for us to have learned that violence and war are perfect vehicles for the perpetuation of conflict, but completely obsolete when it comes to the genuine resolution of conflict? How much more time do we need? How much more time do we have?