Seven scientists in Italy face manslaughter charges. No, they did not drink and drive. No, they did not loose some deadly experimental gas on an unsuspecting public. No, they did not explode a miniature nuclear bomb. In fact they did not do anything. It’s what they didn’t do that got them in trouble.
They didn’t predict the 2009 earthquake in Central Italy.
This is not joke headline day, though my first reading of the headline was accompanied by a quick look at the URL to make sure it was not The Onion. It was not, though some reporters shared my incredulity. The judge refused to dismiss the case and it will start this fall. No kidding.
There are two lessons here. One is that people will go to extraordinary lengths to blame others for everything bad that happens to them. From the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve to Italian scientists today, man has never given up pointing to everything and everyone but himself for misfortune. When supernatural bogeymen like evil spirits and demons lost their believability, we simply substituted something just as silly but more palatable to the postmodern taste–real people.
Sometimes we blame specific people, as in the present case. Sometimes we blame a whole bunch of people in general, as when we link bad weather to anthropogenic global warming. The poor are invariably poor because of society, never their own choices. The obese are obese because of the companies that sell sodas. Philanderers have a sex addiction due to heaven knows what; they never choose to be unfaithful. All these would be humorous were it not for the material damage done to people who have to defend themselves against this kind of silliness.
The other lesson is much more grave. It is that we as a species are spiraling downward toward a level of naivete and gullibility not seen since the Middle Ages. Are witch trials and inquisitions the things of history–chilling but far-removed stories of man’s inhumanity to man or are they harbingers of a New Dark Age? Does the judge in Italy really think there is a case here? I am not sure I want to know the answer, as I am already wary of becoming irredeemably disgusted with humanity.
I have this creeping feeling that I am witnessing the death of man’s brief emergence from the darkness. It is as if we have stuck our heads out of the hole, looked around for a few hundred years, and then hid again, happy to suffer quietly in the cold dampness of our former abode rather than rouse ourselves to greatness in the sunshine.
A few of us will never go back. We will carry the fire of reason for as long as it burns. We will witness the precipitous decline of humanity, mourning but not succumbing. We will stand up when others fold. We will be just when others engage in an orgy of mutual blame. We will celebrate human greatness while others torch man’s greatest achievements. We will encircle the scientist set upon by a crowd of slobbering animals and keep alive the power that makes us what we are.
When the world has burned to the ground, we will pick up what is left and start building once again. We will not live in fear of the looter or the tyrant. We will live as we know we were meant to live–alive, unafraid. You know who you are. Have courage, my friend. We are the last embers of a once-roaring fire. Let us keep it alive for as long as there is one breath of life in us.