OWLS HEAD, Maine — The Boston Marathon attack was not 9/11. But the awful shock, that kick-in-the-gut feeling it created, brought back memories of that first, terrifying run-in with international terrorism.
The death rate in Boston was minuscule, 1/1,000th of those lost on 9/11, but that it happened at one of the nation's happiest, carefree athletic events made it particularly painful, and not just for the memories it evoked. Sure, we'll continue to have marathons, parades, mass celebrations of one sort or another, but like our trips through airports these days, they'll be less carefree, more burdensome, less the innocent experience of our youth.
As President Barack Obama said right after the bombing, Boston is a "resilient" city; Americans indeed are a resilient people. But look around: Compared to much of the rest of the world over the past century, we have been lucky, we have experienced relatively little to be resilient about.
Coincidentally, Yemen was the subject of a talk at lunch at Maine's Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations a few hours before the Boston bombing. Now, there's a country that needs resilience. It was poor 40 years ago; since then, the population has tripled. In the meantime, it has experienced civil war, ongoing low-grade insurgencies, and terrorism.
Three years ago, there were 300 or so Al Qaeda members in Yemen; today, after Obama's stepped-up drone campaign, that number has tripled or quadrupled. US drones have become the perfect recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. The country continues to disintegrate, moving toward failed-state status.
Other resilience exemplars? How about Iraqis? Twenty years under Saddam Hussein, including an unnecessary and very bloody decade-long war with neighbor Iran; and then the US invasion, a hundred thousand or more dead, a million refugees. And now, terrorist bombings worse than Boston on an almost daily basis. Or Afghanistan? Thirty years of war, first with the Russian occupation, later ours, and a future looming more bleak than the past.
But if life in Yemen or Iraq or Afghanistan has been terrible, what must be it be like to live in North Korea? Our focus this last month has been on the self-parodying juvenile ruler of the country as he threatens to unleash nuclear war.
But if he and the North Korean leadership are a sick joke, living there is anything but a joke. The population is perpetually on the verge of starvation, with hundreds of thousands in gulag-style forced-labor camps, while their cousins to the south enjoy a living standard second only to Japan in all of Asia. A single identity split in two: half, brainwashed slaves, half, prosperous and free; the unfairness, the randomness, of life.
Meanwhile, the death total in the Syrian civil war approaches 100,000, perhaps a footnote compared to the million or more that have died in the Congo's endless wars over the last 20 years. But Syria is still in the first act of what will surely be a five-act tragedy: Once Bashar al-Assad is finally overthrown, the Islamists and the secularists, with support from their neighbors, will have at it for years to come.
In Egypt last weekend, ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak was dragged once again into court, with, according to press reports, something that looked like a smirk on his face: "I knew you'd miss me," he seemed to be saying. And, increasingly and with reason — the country broke, unemployment at record levels, unrest growing — they do.
The Arab spring, the Arab rebirth, didn't begin two years ago; it began more than half a century ago when the colonial powers, the French and the British, departed, leaving mostly artificial states in the hands of dictators, the population hardly better off than when the Ottomans had decamped 40 years earlier. When will Arab summer ever come?
The world is a rough place: As many as 20 million Russians were killed or starved to death under Stalin's leadership — and that was on top of the 2 million dead in World War I. Twenty million? Mao may have killed twice as many of his countrymen. In England and France and Germany, a whole generation of men were wiped out by World War I. Six million Jews, a majority of that ancient people, tortured and killed by Hitler.
And of course, death on this scale didn't begin in the 20th century. The Black Death wiped out over 50 percent of Europe's population in the middle of the 14th century. Two centuries later, in the 1500s, estimates of the Native American population felled by European diseases range between a "low" of 75 percent to as high as 90 percent.
In our own civil war, of a population at the time of about 35 million, more than 600,000 Americans were killed. Bad enough, but nothing compared to what so much of the rest of the world has seen since then.
Last month, when an asteroid struck Russia, there was a spate of articles about the dangers that asteroids potentially pose to our world. I suppose, if you take the long view — like a few million years — the risk of serious worldwide damage from an errant asteroid is real, but we've got much more serious threats in the century ahead.
President Obama, in an idealistic mode before he had to deal with the reality of the White House, talked about a goal of nuclear disarmament. We don't hear much about that any more. But nuclear weapons — and their offspring — are the most serious threat we face. Not necessarily from Iran, nor even North Korea. And not just nuclear war, but the ability, down the road, for terrorists — like the Boston Marathon guy, be he a domestic nutcase or an international one — to build their own atomic weapons, suitcase-size, and explode them simultaneously in Grand Central and JFK, or the Maine Mall.
200 years ago, when James Madison was president, there was no electricity, no railroads; it took longer to get from Boston to the new capital in Washington than it had taken the Romans, 18 centuries earlier, to go the same distance. We've come a long way in 200 years. And we're moving forward — material progress — at an ever-faster rate.
But how will we control the worst among us? Will we be able to prevent destruction on a scale we've yet to see? The past, as they say, is prologue — and the past has seen terrible things. Have we, as humans, progressed so rapidly since Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we will be able to contain the destructive capabilities we, as individuals, increasingly possess?
In his evocative poem, "You, Andrew Marvell," about the rise and fall of nations, Archibald MacLeish, writing in the late '40s at the zenith of American power:
And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noon-ward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night
Yes, indeed, it's good we are a resilient people.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.