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The Destroyer of Words

The latest scandal story about the State Department coverup of a U.S. ambassador who was allegedly soliciting prostitutes in a public park brought two things to mind. The first, unbidden and unsupported, was that factions in the bureaucracy were at war with each other and the target of the one faction was Obama and the target of the other was She Who Must Not Be Named.

But that was speculation. The more tenable line of thought was a reminder that humans are fallible and often corrupt. This has always been true, so how do we live with ourselves? At first, simply by surviving the worst we could do to ourselves.

For much of history our ability to harm ourselves was fortunately limited by the crude nature of our means. But by the dawn of the 19th century it became obvious that the lack of technology alone could not forever protect us. Men were inventing more and more lethal devices. Dynamite, when it was first introduced, produced almost the same fear in futurists as the atomic bomb. It is widely believed that Alfred Nobel endowed the "Nobel Prize" to assuage a guilty conscience.

In 1888 Alfred's brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred's obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Alfred was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.

The same kind of apocalyptic powers were ascribed to the machine gun, poison gas, and the bomber. In 1932, Stanley Baldwin wrote "the time has now come to an end when Great Britain can proceed with unilateral disarmament ... the bomber will always get through." But it remained for J. Robert Oppenheimer to put the thought in its iconic form. Looking on his own creation Oppenheimer described how he was mentally transported back to the ancient battlefields of the Bhagavad Gita to face the inevitable fruit of his inventiveness: "I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

That was nearly 70 years ago and the world is still here. What happened to keep it going?