five minutes to midnight?

Warning: this post may not be appropriate for a beautiful spring Friday afternoon. Proceed with caution.

In addition to Generation X, the other book I've been reading recently is Stud's Terkel's The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, an oral history he did in the '80s about the growing divide between the rich and the poor, which I picked up in a second-hand bookstore recently. So much immersion in '80s thinking has me wondering: is terrorism the nuclear war of the 21st century?

When I was about 12, my local paper did a story on the possible fallout from a nuclear strike on Philadelphia in their Sunday magazine. I remember looking at the map on the front page, which showed how long it would take the blast wave to radiate out from Center City, and realizing that my family and I would have about 5 minutes to get to a bomb shelter. Throughout high school and college, the idea that we were five minutes from midnight on the clock of human history was a fairly prevalent one. Movies like the Terminator and The Day After saturated us with images of the pending nuclear apocalypse. Many people went to bed every night convinced that having Ronald Reagan's finger on the button would lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and spent time organizing huge rallies and small street corner demonstrations for peace.

And there was glasnost. And humanity collectively breathed a sigh of relief, as we slowly began to wind the clock backwards.

I'm not sure exactly what o'clock we're at right now. But what I'm wondering is, has the threat of terrorism become as pervasive as the threat of nuclear war was, in the Cold War era? For myself, I'd say no. While the spread of terrorism does concern me, I'm not convinced that the extinction of the species is imminent, the way I was in the early- and mid-'80s. But I wonder, for those who are younger than me, those who didn't grow up under the shadow of the bomb, if terrorism occupies the same mental space that the concept of nuclear winter once did for me.


April 21, 2006. random other things.


  1. Sandra replied:

    Hysteria over terrorism makes me think of the Red Scare.

  2. Elizabeth replied:

    I do think so. Like worrying about nuclear war, worrying about terrorism is a fear of something that’s pretty much out of your control and most of us do a good job of shoving it out of our brains most of the time, but it could pop up at any time. Especially for those of us in DC, and presumably NY as well — I still find myself looking up anxiously when a jet is particularly loud.

  3. Beverlee replied:

    Interesting observations. I live in Canada but, my first thought is that we are so bombarded with information now, that after a while, I don’t even listen or hear it. Although I imagine those who expereinced 9/11 first hand might have a different perspective.
    I think back then, not being as informed or as aware would cause more fear.

  4. Comfort Addict replied:

    I remember those “duck and cover” drills from my childhood. I wonder whether kids today have a similar regimen for terrorism.

  5. HeatherJ replied:

    I remember all the hoopla surrounding “The Day After” and that parents were warned to not let their kids watch it because it would cause nightmares.

    However now I have a hard time even watching the nightly news because it will usually have something on Iraq with either W or C or Condaleeza saying something that I just want to scream about. I do get scared for my kids that we are getting ourselves into another long term “war” situation.

  6. Jennifer replied:

    Interesting thought. I have a cousin who refused to go to university because the world was about to end in the 80s (and he was in New Zealand!) , and I doubt you’d get that happening in the same way about terrorism. But it’s certainly today’s boogyman, even here in Australia where nothing has happened.

  7. chip replied:

    I’m about 10 years older than you, so I can also think about when the Vietnam war was going on when I was a kid. I remember having dreams of ” communist chinese” invading the US and fighting them off with a baseball bat!

    Right wing war monger that he was, Reagan nevertheless was able to admit that he was wrong about Gorbachev, and seemed to actually value security of the US (though he was way off base I think).

    The guys in power now make Reagan look like a great statesman; they have such intense personal issues, and are using the military of the US to resolve them. That’s what’s really scary, scarier than in cold war. And they can do this because there really is no threat to the US that even compares to cold war.

    As for terrorism, the “threat” does not compare in any possible with with the Cold War. It seems like Bush and company want to make sure that they make the world even less safe. How else could one explain these idiotic ideas of “nuking Iran” and thinking it would actually have any possible positive outcome?

    So the biggest threat is not the terrorists, destructive as they’d like to be. The biggest threat are these people in DC who have at their command the largest army and nuclear arsenal in the world, and who are using it in the most irresponsible way possible. Grrrrrrrr…

  8. alala replied:

    I don’t know. I can’t really take terrorism as seriously as the threat of nuclear war that shaped my childhood. Maybe because I read On The Beach, and believed that nuclear war really would kill us all, whether quickly or slowly, because it would literally poison the environment we need to live. Terrorism has happened several times, and while it changed the way we think about some things, it only actually killed the people who were right there. We as a species are surviving it, which makes it different from all-out nuclear war.

    On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the fear of nuclear war shaped my childhood, and those fears are so much stronger than anything we first encounter as adults.

  9. Daydreams and Musings replied:

    I can’t remember being particularly worried about nuclear war as a kid. I’ve always had a tendency to be kind of oblivious to that sort of stuff. But I was just commenting on another blog about how, after 9/11, my husband and I discussed escape plans to get ourselves and the kids out of the city in the event of an attack. Every once in awhile I get nervous about the possibility of a dirty bomb being unleashed and needing to get the hell out. I’ve been more concerned lately, not so much for the U.S. but for Israel, because Iran is developing nuclear capability.

    I realize that I am probably the least liberal of those that have commented and hopefully I won’t offend anyone but I think we, as the strongest and wealthiest democracy, have some responsibility to stop one country from whiping out another country with a nuclear bomb. Although Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims Iran won’t build nuclear bombs, he’s also made public statements that Israel “cannot exist” and has agreed that it needs to be wiped from the earth. Do we wait until he has a bomb and uses it or do we try to prevent it? Not that I think we should “nuke Iran” but we simply cannot turn our heads and ignore such a threat. We need to continue to press the U.N. to do the right thing.

    I’m no fan of George Bush and his cronies and I’m concerned about our presence in Iraq. But I worry about a huge group of highly motivated individuals whose religion requires them to destroy “infidels” wherever they find them. Being an infidel myself, that makes me a bit nervous.

    So much for not being controversial . . .

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