Saturday, July 1, 2006

"The Plague of Passivity"

 "The Plague of Passivity"

(The Jewish Week 07/21/2006)

Perhaps the key question of the 21st century concerns the dwindling margin for error we have in responding to the growing threats around us. When a single individual or group can combine a malignant ideology with deadly technology to destroy numerous lives in an instant, and not even the strongest nation on earth can stop them, people naturally become squeamish. No wonder auto racing has never been so popular. Each waking moment we all feel like we are behind a NASCAR wheel, continuously straddling the precipice separating life from death, constantly forced to make instant choices between too-hasty action and fatal inaction. Our response time has become razor thin.

In the face of extreme danger, intolerance infects us. Although I have issues with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and the House’s xenophobic plan for immigration reform I can understand the fear that gave rise to them. We are petrified that some kind of mythical midnight is about to strike, and that fear is forcing us to act even at the cost of some of our basic human rights. If we need to err, let us err on the side of survival. There is no time to seek compromise. All that matters is to act.

The dread of passivity crosses party lines. In his recent documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore employs a popular experiment to drive home his point that the human race is falling asleep at the environmental wheel. In this experiment, a frog placed into boiling water immediately jumps out, whereas a frog placed into cold water will not even flinch if the water is slowly heated to the boiling point. It will train itself to tolerate the discomfort of each incremental shift in temperature and eventually, this weakness will lead to the frog’s demise.

Bad news for the frog; worse news for us. In fact, I’ve read claims that, given their druthers, frogs would rather not be boiled alive. Humans are another story entirely. Gore’s point is that we have tolerated a rate of global warming that has increased exponentially over recent years. Last year was the hottest on record, and scientists now expect the world’s temperature to rise 2 to 4 degrees by 2100, much more at the polar icecaps. Oceans will soon rise precipitously, which will dramatically change the map of the world, and the administration has been fiddling while Nome burns. Gore sees literally no margin for error at this point. All that matters is that we act.

President Bush would say the same thing about Iran and North Korea.

Frogs are nearing the boiling point almost everywhere we look. As if to underscore the point, according to this month’s Science magazine, up to 122 amphibian species have become extinct since 1980. And nearly a third of the more than 5,000 species that remain are also considered threatened. In an atmosphere of pending environmental catastrophe, frogs have become the proverbial canary in the mineshaft.

Greenland is melting and North Korea is launching its calling cards into the Sea of Japan. Iran is nearly nuclear and is already test firing its missiles — at Israel, by way of Lebanon. Until now the world has been extremely tolerant of these provocations. In Israel, rockets on Sderot were tolerated, until they began raining down on Ashkelon, Nahariya, Safed, Haifa and Tiberias.

The biblical plague of frogs, as we recall, was only the second of the 10 inflicted upon the Egyptians and a seemingly innocuous one at that. Exodus (8:2) tells us that the second plague began with only one frog. But when that frog was not properly dispensed with soon enough swarms of frogs were everywhere. Long before “An Inconvenient Truth,” the frog was symbolic of the horrible consequences of inaction.

It’s rather fitting that the first surface-to-surface missile purchased for the North Korean arsenal was the FROG 5, delivered from the Soviet Union in 1969 and 1970. Then came the Scud, a plague inflicted upon Israel by Iraq during the Gulf War. Now we’ve gone beyond FROGS, Scuds, Katyushas and Kassams. If only the world had been able to stop things when we were just dealing with FROGS, we wouldn’t have gotten the Iranian Fajr-3s that are now being used against Haifa.

This proxy war featuring Hamas and Hezbollah is a test run for the real thing, when the ante could be raised considerably with the development of Iranian nuclear capacity. That’s why it is now time for Israel and the world to jump from the quickly warming water, before it comes to its nuclear boil. Just as Israel crippled the Iraqi threat at Osiris in 1981, so does it now have the chance to win another war that the world needs so desperately to win.

There are many legends about the plague of frogs, some touting the heroism of the frogs themselves. In fact, unlike Gore’s clueless amphibian, the frogs of the second plague took great pains to appear everywhere. They even jumped headfirst into blazing ovens and enmesh themselves in rising dough in order to ambush unwitting Egyptians cutting open their loaves of bread. These frogs were models for the proactive ethos this new century demands. But the frog also remains a reminder of the plague of passivity.

I’ve developed a bi-partisan bias toward preemptive action, whether the enemy is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gore’s greenhouse gasses. The calendar is also helping to remind Jews as to the need to be proactive in the face of danger.

The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av began this year, as if on cue, with the first strike on Haifa. Over the centuries, at times when the world seemed much larger and history moved more slowly, these three weeks have reminded Jews that the dreams of generations can go up in flames overnight. Now, in this hyped up, multi-tasking, 24/7, instant messaging, NASCAR era, “overnight” has just gotten a lot closer.


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