By Akio Matsumura
“Well George, we knocked the bastard off.” These were Sir Edmund Hillary’s first words to a friend after descending from the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Time Magazine named him and his companion Tenzing Norgay, the first two to summit Mount Everest, two of the most influential people of the 20th century. The idea of conquering pervades Western thought and has given way to human civilization’s incredible achievements. But this insatiable need to surpass has led us into many intractable situations and caused us to lose sight of the larger forces at play. Did they really “knock the bastard off?”
As humans, we are governed by two sets of laws—natural law (often defined or interpreted through spiritual texts) and human (political) law. How we choose to perceive and reconcile their power greatly alters the trajectory of human civilization. The most spectacular consequences of these laws, natural disasters and wars, define our human history. Pompeii is still being excavated 2000 years after a volcano buried it in ash and disease has wreaked havoc on whole populations. Human-waged wars—from warring ancient Chinese states to World War II—have shaken civilizations as well.
Three recent symbolic dates stand out as civilization-shakers. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States. On February 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt after several weeks of revolt. And on March 11, 2011, Japan was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami. The human toll and sacrifices from these events are equally painful. But they have each shaped the trajectory of our civilization in a different way.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan and a tsunami, with waves up to 124 feet high, consumed the island. The Japanese government has confirmed that 14,159 people have died and 13,169 people are missing. The final consequences of the structural damages to the Fukushima nuclear reactor are unknown, but hundreds of thousands of residents within a 12 mile radius have been evacuated. It is a new, wordless sensation to see a cruise boat left balanced atop a building surrounded by rubble. One newspaper compared the power of the waves to that of 250 jumbo jets flying at 1,000 km per hour–the two kilometer breakwater, the deepest in the world, did not stand a chance. March 11 has left us knowing the incontestable power of nature.
On September 11, 2001, a decade earlier, Al-Qaeda flew planes into New York and Washington. These attacks had several clear and immediate consequences: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War and all of the deaths and casualties they brought about. And, unarguably, tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims have increased for the long term, although this was boosted my September 11, not caused by it. Domestically, Americans continue to relinquish their freedoms for greater security. While I always assumed my phone lines were monitored in the 1970s and 1980s while I worked in the multilateral organizations, I never imagined the current physical intrusiveness of airport security and the enormity of the current state surveillance system. In their battle for security, Americans have lost sight of the balanced democratic principles that brought their country its initial greatness. It seems to me that Americans have allowed the terrorists to hijack their democracy. September 11 has left us questioning America’s democratic freedoms.
On February 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian presidency, encouraging a revolution to blossom across North Africa and the Middle East. Although democratic efforts in Egypt have been nipped by a dominant military, they have blown to neighboring countries in the region. We may not know the true outcome of the Arab Spring for decades, but is it clear that the region’s young people, working at a grassroots level, have started and will continue to write their region’s history for the coming generations. They are creating a new democracy, and are making sure to keep a safe distance from America’s compromised democracy and dogmatic views. We have seen no incidents of rebels burning US or Israeli flags because their demand, freedom, is beyond these petty qualms. The transition will not be easy. The region’s major issues–energy, environment, politics–will be great challenges for the new leadership. These difficulties create a unique situation for a young democracy, and encourage them to find an uncompromisable and visionary result. February 11 has left us hoping for a new democratic vision.
If our greatest human achievements are easily trumped by nature’s forces, what do we have left? The United States must ask if the mountain can really be conquered, but it need look no farther than Japan for the answer. And in the Middle East, political tyrannies are being uprooted by an emerging generation in search of a more sustainable vision. I am confident they will find it.