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Leaping for the stars, foundering in the dark

Andy Stone

The two items were back to back on the morning news: “New Crew Arrives at Space Station” and “Car Bombs Kills Dozens in Iraq.”

We leap for the stars even as we drown in blood. The bright future; the dark past.

I remember my chagrin on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, when I recalled that just the day before I had been talking about plans for a system that would allow you to stand in front of a Coke machine, dial a number on your cell phone and have the machine dispense a can of soda, charged to your telephone account. I thought how silly we were, chattering children with high-tech toys, interrupted by a skeletal claw from the depths of hell, dragging us downward into the grave.

That is our world, teetering on the divide between past and future. Once upon a time, it

seemed as if the darkness of the past had been vanquished and we were on our way to the stars. True, the future never quite seemed to live up to its advance billing. The shiny gleam of our vision was always a bit tarnished

when it arrived, but it was the future and it was coming true.

But “tarnish” was not the right word, because the darkness that dulls that bright promise is more than just a surface discoloration. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The darkness of the past is very much alive, within us all.

It is tempting, of course, to shift the darkness to “the others.” It isn’t “us.” It’s “them.”

These days, “they” are most often Muslims – it is certain that the Muslim world revels in fighting battles that have lasted for centuries.

Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has declared that “The tragedy of al-Andalus must not be repeated.” The tragedy he refers to is the reconquest of Spain by Christians, completed in 1492.

Of course, if we’re looking for the darkness of the past, we might note that, in that same year, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain. It was the final act in the reign of terror of the Spanish Inquisition.

And if thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition make it clear that the darkness of the past is not just a Muslim darkness, so we should also realize that fighting centuries-old battles is not just a Muslim pastime. During the recent war in Kosovo, we learned that the Serbs were still fighting to avenge their defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in 1389.

So, Muslims fight to avenge a defeat that occurred more than 500 years ago. Serbs, a defeat more than 600 years old.

But if those nations and cultures, devoted to ancient wrongs, represent the darkness of the past, we must recognize that we – the bright, shiny and oh-so-modern Americans, for whom 1492 is a year not of reconquest nor banishment, but of discovery – have our own links to the darkness.

Yes, the “modern” world is, for better or worse, very much ours. We are the ones who have pushed the hardest and moved the furthest in that journey to the stars. But we must not forget that our president is a man who has said that “the verdict is still out” on evolution – because his religion tells him so.

This isn’t meant as Bush bashing. It is simply to point to the fact that religion – vital though it may be to so many people – can be a powerful force dragging us backward into the past.

Indeed, it would seem that religion weighs heavily in that struggle between our leap for the stars and our retreat into darkness. The tragedy of al-Andalus. The Battle of the Field of Blackbirds. The fight over the Theory of Evolution. These were – and are – all religious wars.

But we should go even a step further. Religion embodies both sides of the divide. Heaven above, hell below. It draws our spirits to the stars – and beyond – and yet it so often mires our minds in the darkness. Think of Galileo – arrested, excommunicated, sentenced to life in prison … for teaching that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

And so we teeter on the edge, pushed this way, pulled that way, as our astronauts fly to the space station and car bombs kill dozens in the cities of ancient Iraq.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is andy@aspentimes.com


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