18 Jan 2006

9/11 and The War of the Worlds

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Wretchard notes how well H.G. Wells’ 1898 description, in his classic War of the Worlds , of mankind’s failure to detect signs, or conceive the possibility, of a Martian Invasion fits the failure of the Western democracies a century later to recognize a rising threat from closer to home, but very nearly as alien in its values and perspective (and indifference to the destruction of human life) as any Martians.

H.G. Wells described how complacent men could be in the presence of unseen but growing danger.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

With a few changes Wells’ paragraph could describe the mixture of smug amusement with which the Western intellectual elite watched the growing number of Wahabist mosques, the photography of landmarks, the application for flying lessons and the attendance at courses of nuclear physics by students from older worlds. They laughed, for nothing could threaten the dominion of Western Man, supreme in his socialized state at the End of History. Even after September 11 the only question for many was how soon history would return to normal after a temporary inconvenience. Little did they imagine that the expansion of the European Union, the Kyoto Agreements and Reproductive Rights — all the preoccupations of their unshakable world — might be the least of humanity’s concerns in the coming years.

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