Word comes this morning of a 6.0 earthquake centered about 130 miles from Mexico City, a place already frightened by the swine flu outbreak. "We Mexicans are not used to living with so much fear, but all that is happening -- the economic crisis, the illnesses and now this -- it feels like the apocalypse," a 22-year-old told the Associated Press. Take comfort, Yanks. Apparently the teaching of history is as neglected in Mexico as here. In 1519, apocalypse of the mighty and advanced Aztec Empire came at the hands of Hernan Cortes, 600 conquistadores and Indian allies who had chafed under the Aztec lash. Cortes leveled Tenochtitlan, built Mexico City.
Something American schoolchildren aren't taught: 90 percent of the indigenous population of the New World perished in the decades after first contact with the Europeans, mostly because the Europeans unwittingly carried diseases against which the Indians had no immunity. Entire tribes were wiped out. Civilizations do end, sometimes with great speed.
We have the jitters. This morning, the backup plane for Air Force One flew low over Manhattan accompanied by fighter jets. It was a photo-op, but nervous people evacuated several buildings. The flu -- it's hard to know. Much of instant, electronic, everywhere media have one speed: hysteria. Still, at least 20 million people were killed by the 1918 flu, perhaps many more -- and that particular strain is still not completely understood. It came as another world was ending, as empires were collapsing at the end of World War I's then unprecedented carnage and the particular optimism of the early 20th century vanished forever.
We've been staring at apocalypse all my life. I was so terrorized by the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis and the duck-and-cover drills at Kenilworth School (actually, we stood in the auditorium and put our arms around our heads!), that I became a child nuclear war junkie. I learned everything I could about civil defense, survival, throw weight, first strikes, MIRVs...it was the only way I could put one foot in front of another. I dreamed nuclear dreams, imagined a northern sky with thousands of crescents of descending Russian warheads. The Saturday noon test in Phoenix of the air raid sirens always, always stuck a dagger in my heart -- wavy siren for imminent attack, long siren for attack possible. Tucson was a first-strike target because of the Titan ICBMs buried in the high desert (capable of carrying our largest multi-megaton weapons). When Valley Center was built in downtown Phoenix in the early 1970s, I thought: Soviet aiming point. When I lived in Ocean Beach in San Diego, everyone knew the Navy stored nukes right down the peninsula. I never believed we would see a peaceful end of the Cold War.
So sometimes civilizations can save themselves. As Abba Eban said, "When all else fails, men turn to reason." Sometimes. But having spent my youth personally facing down nuclear war, I had a hard time hyperventilating over "the war on terror" -- certainly not to the point that it justified shredding the Constitution and enshrining torture as American policy for the first time in history. To our great shame.
So the swine flu might be a manageable situation, a media scare like Ebola and SARS. Or it might be a very nasty situation, particularly in a world so populous, so connected, so environmentally degraded and, perhaps, so tapped out on the power of antibiotics. It does add another crisis to the plate of President Obama (what next, a meteor strike?), more expense for the federal government, and a test for Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security (please change the Nazified name, ma'am.).
Only God knows. I have no patience for end-timers who interpret the Book of Revelation to fit a political or sectarian agenda, and somehow neglect all those parts of the New Testament about caring for the last, the least and the lost. Humans have a long history of world-ending ideas, and modern Americans especially so (the History Channel has a series on ways the world could end, another on the ruins we humans will leave behind). Yet when confronted with the knowledge that the sprawl-auto age is ending, we deny it. Better to fear The Big One. Some Big One.
Apocalypse is coded inside each of us, written on our hearts if you will, certainly in our DNA. We will die, many of us too young for the idealized immortality of the average American. The end is always near. Every heartbeat a gift that will stop someday. Maybe an ongoing narrative of mass oblivion makes that certainty less lonely.