Benjamin Blech

How the World Just Escaped Extinction

This is not fake news.  Just a short while ago, the world narrowly escaped a catastrophic event, one which could well have caused its total destruction.

To my mind, it should have received far more universal attention. In its aftermath, it behooves us to give careful reflection to its message about the relationship between our contemporary worship of technology as opposed to an emphasis on our own personal responsibility.

It’s hard to acknowledge this but it was conceivable for our planet Earth to have been blown to smithereens by nuclear missiles as a result of a tragic error. North Korea is today a rogue nuclear power nation with the capability of sending weapons of mass destruction as far as Hawaii as well as, in all probability, the mainland United States. In fact, its mad leader recently threatened to do precisely that.

The United States, as well as other nuclear powers, put their faith in MAD – the concept of mutually assured destruction. For any nation to be the first to use the horrific force of atomic annihilation is to be certain of an immediate response in similar measure, making any attack nothing less than suicidal.

The technology that has made weapons of mass destruction possible has at the same time provided safeguards that make their implementation unthinkable.

America stands ready to defend itself – and a major part of our strategy is the “guaranteed payback” promised against our enemies.

On Saturday, January 13, 2018, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency believed that we stood on the terrible abyss of imminent annihilation. The agency sent an alert to tens of thousands of cell phones warning of an inbound ballistic missile. The response was to be expected. Panic ensued. People called their loved ones with tearful goodbyes. Thousands sought refuge in concrete parking structures in commercial buildings. And soon the system would have demanded the push of the button which would send the return volley of threatened devastation.

By now, you know the truth. It was simply a false alarm. Someone accidentally pressed the wrong button during a routine drill and unintentionally sent a message to the public. But the truth didn’t come out for thirty-eight minutes – thirty-eight minutes that seemed like an eternity of unimaginable terror and fright. And one more thing that wasn’t revealed until many days later: the reason it took so long to correct the erroneous report was because Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige forgot the password for his Twitter account!

Two human mistakes might well have outweighed all the wisdom that went into the technology meant solely to serve mankind.

It was a close call for human survival – but it wasn’t the first.

In the 1970s, the Emergency Broadcast System was created to warn Americans of a Soviet nuclear strike. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, tested its system every Saturday by sending a teletype message across the entire United States to make sure it was working. No one paid much attention until the morning of February 20, 1971, when a civilian teletype operator erroneously took the wrong tape and inserted into the alert system machine. Instead of the message saying “this is only a test,” every radio station warned citizens of a direct alert from the president shortly to be announced – an alert which could only mean a nationwide emergency. To Americans during the era of the Cold War with Russia the implication was clear: the atomic bombs have already left the Soviet Union and they are on their way to the United States.

Then, too, the technicians at NORAD recognized their mistake almost immediately but found themselves unable to cancel the faulty alert because they couldn’t locate the correct code they needed to authenticate their new message!

Eventually, they sent out the correct “cancel” message and the country breathed a sigh of relief. It took forty-five minutes though before the fear of imminent death could be replaced by the realization that although machines can be properly programmed, people are only human.

People forget passwords and codes.

It was only good fortune – and surely Divine intervention – that human error didn’t last long enough to result in human extinction.

That is the profound insight of Albert Einstein. It is to him that twenty-first century man owes his incredible mastery of technology. But Albert Einstein put it beautifully: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

B. F. Skinner put it into contemporary perspective: “The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” We may have all the wisdom of technocrats, but if we forget the password which allows us access to our real knowledge, we remain truly ignorant.

And when the survival of the world is at stake, the password for reaping the benefits of science is nothing less than the truths revealed long ago by God at Sinai. It is more than a religious or spiritual message. It is the essence of what civilization needs to remember in order to keep technology as useful servant rather than dangerous master.

We need to heed the warning of Omar Bradley who said that “if we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”  Stronger still are, once again, the words of Albert Einstein: “the human spirit must prevail over technology.”

Jews around the world, on this Shabbat, will be reading the portion of the Torah which records God’s message to mankind by way of the Ten Commandments. Biblical scholars point out a remarkable feature of the Decalogue: the combined verses on the two tablets of stone have exactly 620 letters. The allusion is clear. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the seven universal laws of mankind as well as the 613 mitzvot given to the Jewish people.

Passwords normally are much shorter. Yet, I cannot help but believe that this text is the ultimate password — the password we dare never forget if we hope to survive and fulfill our divine mission here on Earth.

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, and lecturer.
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