Friday, March 20, 2020


This morning we Californians woke up to find ourselves under the order of our Governor to "shelter in place." In my 80-plus years I never thought to imagine such a thing. Even the strictures of World War II imposed by the scarcity of resources in my native England, including that most basic of all resources, food, fell short of what is required of us today in terms of the surrender of our individual liberties. If we had petrol in those days, we could travel. We could visit family and neighbors. We could assemble in church or the village hall, or--not as children, of course--in our local pub.

And yet clearly the Governor's restrictions make sense. The "enemy" is not a squadron of bombers passing over our heads in the night sky. It's not the unseen, underwater menace of U-boats. It's not legions of men armed with lethal weapons in distant places. The enemy from which we are now required to protect ourselves is ubiquitous as well as unseen, a malicious lurker on potentially every surface we touch, from the handle of the cart in the grocery store to the package delivered to our door by Fedex. It lurks, so it seems, on the hands of strangers, and lingers in the air when they do no more than cough or sneeze.

No matter how infinitesimally tiny or invisible its disguises, it's an enemy that threatens potentially more human lives than all of our wars. And it threatens us all, indiscriminately, not because we are enemies, not because of the nation of our origin or the color of our skin or the nature of our belief--those foolish, old reasons for mutual destruction--but simply because we are convenient carriers for the germ that cares not a whit for human affairs.

It's humbling to acknowledge our powerlessness against this invader. We have built and equipped enormous armies, fleets of high-tech warships and military aircraft. We are more "powerful" than any humans before in the entire history of our species, and yet we are scrambling in fearful disorder when confronted by an enemy whose power we should have been able to predict but for which we are as yet no match.

Once our human ingenuity has found a way past this current catastrophe, as it will, shall we have finally learned the humility we need as a species to avoid being mired in unfounded--and so frequently disproved--delusions about the superiority of our intelligence and its ability to understand and control every aspect of the natural world that tolerates our existence? And for which we are, after all, no more nor less important than the virus that afflicts us. Shall we have learned to "know our place", with the respect that entails for other species, for the environment, for the planet?

It's an outcome devoutly to be wished. Let's be ready not to declare victory at the end of this "war" but rather to learn from the wounds it inflicts.

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