Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Blindfolded Executioner

I recently joined Munich Public Library, which as it is based at the Gasteig Music Hall has a huge collection of classical and modern music CDs, as well as a huge range of English language books. Very useful for a music loving English speaker such as myself. Much to my delight they have a large collection of novels and essays by Martin Amis. Whatever you think of him, he's always a good read and leaves you thinking at the end of whatever you read of his, even if all you think is "what a smug, chauvinistic so and so."

I've started reading "Visiting Mrs Nabakov", a collection of essays he wrote for the Observer and other journals during the 1980s. One of them, "Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals", deals with a visit he made to Washington D.C to learn more about Nuclear Politics as they stood circa. 1987. I always find it fascinating to read articles on Nuclear War from the 1980s, as they almost always have a certainty of doom about them. For a member of the unimaginatively named "Generation Y" it is like reading foreign literature, especially given we are a generation with no memory of the Cold War nor any recollection of a time when 'google' was not even a noun let alone a verb. I found his conclusion quite powerful

"We must fix our kids so that they will have nothing to do with anyone who has anything to do with nuclear weapons, with instruments of blood and rubble. The process with begin at the moment of mortal shame when we acquaint them with the status quo, with the facts of life, the facts of death. So come on. In an inversion of filial confession, we will have to take deep breaths, wipe our eyes and stare into theirs, and tell them what we've done."

Amis's comments raised an interesting point for me. I've said elsewhere that the phrase "Never Again" sometimes rings hollow when we remember that to the names Auschwitz and Sobibor we must add Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina. What Amis makes clear in his article is that the shame of the Nuclear Age must be clarified as well, for it was a gamble of our peace that the planet only narrowly managed to emerge from. There are memorial sites for the Holocaust that happened, yet nothing for the Holocaust that very nearly did occur and for which the world waited with inaction.

One of the topics Amis returns to often is the nuclear experts he meets and the way in which they all acclimatise to dealing with casualty lists and statistics beyond comprehension. Coming up to twenty years since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, it appears that an entire generation has no idea how close they came to being cooked to death at temperatures hotter than the Sun or being slowly eroded through radiation poisoning. From Kate Bush to Genesis, the 1980s is full of music, television series and novels written with the bomb always present. Generation Y is the first generation to have no conception of what it feels like to be threatened by extermination.During the Holocaust the Executioners knew exactly who they were murdering; during the Cold War, the "Red Button" served as a blindfolded executioner, who aimed straight and fired.

I am not saying that reading the latest nuclear statistics in The Guardian while living a relatively comfortable 1980s western existence is in any way similar to being treated like a subhuman before being rounded up and put into camps. They were two different scenarios. However where the sanctity of human life, tolerance and understanding are our educational aims, both histories can offer important lessons and enrich other's message. I have previously commented on the purpose of Memorial Sites both as a place of remembrance and a place of learning, yet it took almost half a century before people were able to face the Holocaust in this manner. Perhaps a similar process of coming to terms with the past must occur for the previous generation as regards the cultural fear of nuclear weapons before we may also learn their lessons on the culture of fear that can produce unimaginable outcomes.

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