On Thursday November 1, death claimed the pilot who guided his B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, over Hiroshima to drop the first (and only) atomic bomb on a war-time target. The drop resulted in the instant deaths of over 100,000 human beings, non-military residents of a Japanese city that included men, women, and children. The city itself was totally flattened, indeed vaporized. Thousands more of the humans in the vicinity eventually died of radiation-caused diseases. And yet, this pilot, Paul Tibbets, who named his bomber after his mother, was quoted as testifying:
“I sleep clearly every night.”
How are we to understand this? This man performs an action that directly causes the deaths of at least 100,000 people, and he sleeps well? What of responsibility for one’s actions? What of Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist) ethics, responsibility, morality?
The question is one that haunts all of us these days. Any American who sleeps well while his taxes are paying for a war in Iraq that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, displaced 4 million more, and, together with 12 years of sanctions enforced before the war, left an entire nation in ruins, has the same problem as Tibbets. Are we or are we not responsible for the effects of our actions? Even though we do not wield the gun or the knife or the bomb, are we answerable for the actions our inaction makes possible? Nor is it just Iraq. American taxpayers fork up $3 billion a year in direct military aid to Israel, and that money goes to occupy and oppress and kill and ethnically cleanse an entire people, the Palestinians, who before WWII lived in the land now called Israel. Do Israelis sleep well? Do we? Did we sleep well when our tax dollars went to destroy a country called Vietnam? How about sleeping well as the cars we drive and the energy we use fills the atmosphere with carbon dioxide that threatens global warming and the accelerated extinction, not only of masses of humans, but of animal species on a mammoth scale. Does this disturb our dreams? Are we responsible for all of this? Part of this? None of this? Can we simply go on as if nothing were the matter and keep telling ourselves, ‘Well, I recycle my newspapers so I’m doing my part. If the earth dies, it’s not my fault?’
It appears we can. Because we are. Right now, today, we are all doing this, thinking in this way. And the question then becomes: what of morality? What of rationality? What of the divine plan? Can we believe in God, any god, if those who carry his or her banner act in such a way as to destroy all life? Apparently. Because it is going on now. And the worst violators seem to be those who noisily claim to be acting in his name.
Paul Tibbets, for instance, knew exactly what he was doing. In a 1975 interview, he is quoted as saying:
“I’m not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did…You’ve got to take stock and assess the situation at that time. We were at war.... You use anything at your disposal.”
So there it is. The gasoline engine is at our disposal. Plastic and chemicals and pesticides and urban sprawl are at our disposal. Electricity for all our gadgets is at our disposal. Uranium-tipped bullets to defeat the enemy are at our disposal. Useless junk in every imaginable form is at our disposal and we use it and throw it away and it fills our garbage dumps and every corner of our earth and poisons our oceans and kills countless creatures in countless ways, and yet we sleep well at night. And imagine that we will survive because, after all, God is on our side.
Which either means that God is a mindless, self-destructive consumer too, or is a figment of the fevered, guilt-ridden imagination of a very self-serving animal known as homo sapiens—a figment who equips us to commit unimaginable crimes in violation of the laws he allegedly lays down, and then to sleep well at night.