Hindsight proves little

May 22, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

SO, HAVE you heard about the moon bomb?

Briefly, it goes like this: In October 1957, the Soviets -- remember them? -- launched Sputnik, the world's first human-made satellite, into space. This launched the United States into panic. American pride was wounded by the idea that the communist superpower had leapfrogged ahead of us in the race to the moon. There was also fear that control of lunar soil would give our archrivals an insurmountable military advantage.

So the U.S. military floated a provocative idea: If we can't be first to the moon, why not just blow it up instead?

OK, so I exaggerate.

But the truth isn't much less outlandish. As recently detailed in the scientific journal Nature, the United States seriously considered responding to the Soviet feat by exploding an atomic weapon on the moon. This, as a means of reassuring the American public and warning the Soviets not to test the nation's resolve.

Are you with me so far?

As a matter of geopolitical one-upsmanship, America almost struck a match against the moon. Holy spit.

Once again, I find myself amazed that humanity has not yet managed to blow itself to oblivion. I also find myself with an increased wariness toward what I call the politics of panic -- policies promulgated from the sweaty extremes of fear or anger. You marvel at the almost-comic idiocy of sending nukes to the moon, yet you have to wonder how many times those extremes have lead -- still lead -- to policies of similar stupidity.

Take the war on drugs.

A righteous anger over the devastation wrought by illicit narcotics leads to an obsessive crusade to end the plague. Which leads, in turn, to a spate of mandatory sentencing laws, as politicians jockey to see who can look the toughest. And that leads, finally, to the jailing of Kemba Smith, a college student from Virginia who neither sold drugs nor used them, but only acted as a courier for a drug-dealing boyfriend who beat her.

She's now serving a sentence of 25 years, no possibility of parole.

Malcolm X spoke famously of achieving justice "by any means necessary."

The implication being that there are some causes so righteous, some needs so urgent, that expedience -- even outrageous expedience -- becomes acceptable. In other words, we need not worry overmuch about how we do what we do.

But that's a slippery slope. So the moment of greatest panic is also the moment it becomes most crucial to stop and think about what we're doing.

We can all be thankful that somebody did precisely that before launching a bomb to the moon. Leonard Reiffel, now a 72-year-old Chicago businessman, was in charge of the team of scientists assigned to determine the feasibility of the idea.

Mr. Reiffel's team, which included a young Carl Sagan, reported back that the undertaking would ruin the scientific value of the pristine lunar environment. "The cool decision was made to not do it," says Mr. Reiffel. "That has to be underlined."

Mr. Reiffel, you see, is not without sympathy for the men who floated the crazy idea. As he points out, "The Russians were already operational with their ICBMs. And the U.S. public and probably a lot of the U.S. professional military were frightened to death."

Forty years later, it's easy to caricature that fear, to laugh at paranoid Cold Warriors with goofy brush cuts and "commies" on the brain. A little too easy, I think.

There's an unearned smugness there, a sense that we have evolved beyond panic, when the truth is all that has changed is the brush cuts and the perceived threat. Each generation panics in its own way.

And maybe 40 years later, when our present panic is forgotten, we will, as the Cold Warriors do, face the unforgiving judgment of hindsight wisdom. So smugness seems premature.

Hindsight hasn't been generous to them. Why should we believe it will be any kinder to us?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com. His book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," is available from Amazon.com.

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