This Sunday, 18 February, is the 40th anniversary of the death of Robert Oppenheimer, the man with the dubious distinction of designing the first atomic bomb. In 1945, unlike the victory in Europe, the victory over Japan marked the beginning of a condition that threatened the extinction of human civilisation.
It was the end of our innocence, the time when all our social institutions were robbed of their moral authority. Membership of the atomic age gave us notice to cancel out everyone and everything at anytime. Children growing up in the post-Hiroshima age faced the possibility of instant annihilation. Their fear and angst gave rise to a counter-culture of political, social and artistic dissent.
Yet the end of the Cold War has not seen an end to our existential neurosis. Bob Dylan’s song Masters of War is as appropriate now as it was then. We remain a culture informed by nihilism and anxiety. John Reid recently remarked that the fight against terrorism will be our new Cold War, echoing Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair’s assertions that the threat of terrorism is far graver than the dangers faced then. And yet the occurrence of a terrorist attack doesn’t, by itself, statistically increase their risk. A belief that one occurrence makes further events of the same nature more likely is the “misleading vividness” fallacy. Yet belief in such fallacies allows politicians to erode our civil liberties and human rights, not to mention giving the nod to embark on disastrous illegal wars.
A culture of fear informs public policy and our private lives. The effects of counter terrorism have demonised and alienated a whole religious community, with the added threat of further radicalisation. There is a need to address the socio-economic disadvantages and discrimination that many Islamic communities face as well as the police powers of stop and search based on ethnic profiling. Counter-terrorism laws and practice can only be implemented through the framework of human rights.
We do not have the vibrant counter-culture of the Cold War years. Yet the remaining fear of being on the eve of destruction still runs through our veins. We should remember there’s more than one type of mushroom cloud, more than one type of terrorist. It’s the one living inside us all.
Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service