To Live Free From the Grip of Terror

[This piece was written in October, 1985, at a time when the cold war had intensified, and the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers – President Reagan of the United States and Premier Gorbachev of the Soviet Union – were about to meet for the first time. This was written and performed as a radio commentary broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” It was also published in my 1988 book, Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War (pp. 82-3).]

I went to the Kennedy Center the other night. On the way in, I noticed that the huge bank of windows around the entrance, flanked by tall metal columns, formed a visual doorway sixty feet high. The place was designed at the height of the American empire. We thought we were bigger than human, so we built entrances for giants.

The occasion was a concern to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. With people from over one hundred countries in attendance, Elliot Richardson spoke words of welcome, and spoke as well of the importance of nations resolving their differences by discussion rather than war. He was followed by a young black American diplomat—beautiful in his elegance and eloquence, beautiful too standing as an embodiment of the genuine possibilities for human liberation. We must, he said, rekindle the hope that brought the United Nations forth out of the devastation of World War II, the hope for a new beginning for mankind.

Part of the concern was the 5th Symphony by Shostakovich. I read over the program notes, and the story they told took my breath away. The symphony was written and first performed in the Soviet Union in 1937, at “the height of the Stalin terror.” Through his music, Shostakovich spoke to that unspoken terror, spoke so deeply that many in that Leningrad audience wept. “The applause went on for an entire hour,” our conductor Rostropovich was quoted as saying. “People … ran up and down through the streets of Leningrad till the small hours, embracing and congratulating each other on having been there.” They had understood, said Rostropovich, the symphony’s “message of sorrow, suffering and isolation; stretched on the rack of the Inquisition, the victim still tries to smile in his pain.”

I was moved to remember the obvious, that more than anything else the Russians are our fellow human beings. It is those Russians who wept in Leningrad [at the performance of the symphony by Shostakovich that was being performed that night at the Kennedy Center], and their children, and their grandchildren, whom we are poised to vaporize by the millions, I thought; and it is they whose weapons stand ready to annihilate us.

We are all living now in an era over which terror rules. Our fear we have in common, yet we have allowed our fear to divide us. From fear of being vulnerable human beings, we make ourselves into nuclear giants. These giants hide their fear behind the fortifications on which they display their bluster and threat. Bigger than human, but less than human too.

The true “high frontier” lies not in an outer space to be filled with still more weapons. It is in our inner space, where we are challenged to find that common humanity that can bridge over the walls we have built between us.

As our leaders go to Geneva, like those who first heard Shostakovich’s symphony, we long to hear something that speaks to our common terror. We too would weep with relief as we ran out into the night to embrace each other.

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